Christmas in black and white

You’ve heard my prattle about Hallmark Christmas movies. Except for mentioning that The Christmas Train is head and shoulders above all the rest and my absolute favorite so far this season, I’ll leave you to chat about Hallmark movies amongst yourselves. This post, instead, is about their worthy ancestor of an entirely different ilk, our favorite black-and-white movies from the 1940s.

Most of us know and love It’s a Wonderful Life, and it’s certainly on our list. But there are some lesser known gems that you might really enjoy if you give them a chance. I’ve heard many folks say they can’t watch anything past the opening and closing scenes of The Wizard of Oz in black and white. That’s their loss, as far as I’m concerned. I will say, however, that to enjoy these movies, you must  1) stop wishing for color*; 2) understand and appreciate that most of these films have a point of view that is clearly traditional and religious, 3) accept that they reflect the social conventions, among them misconceptions and narrowness, of their time, and 4) of course, suspend your disbelief.

Just as an aside, note that many of the holiday flicks we consider “classic” today are funny, and centered largely on Santa Claus and family shenanigans. Don’t misconstrue—we love the lot:  A Christmas Story, Elf, Tim Allen’s reluctant Santa Claus, Fred Claus and his highly dysfunctional family , and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, of course, as much as anyone. Belly laughs are good medicine for holiday frenzy.  But the ones on our list, even the funny ones, are far more subtle. We watch them every year, sometimes more than once. (And just to squash any ideas to the contrary, most of these were released before I was born.)

It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey, Clarence, and the rest of the entourage do not need a plug from me. Director Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece about a man lifted out of despair by an unlikely angel.

The Bishop’s Wife. David Niven as a depressed bishop, Loretta Young as the wife who struggles to cheer him, and Cary Grant as the angel who fixes it all. Directed by Henry Koster and released in 1947.

The Shop Around the Corner,  Director Ernst Lubitsch’s utterly charming Christmas-in-Budapest tale, released in 1940, that was Nora Ephron’s inspiration for You’ve Got Mail. Jimmy Stewart strikes gold again, this time with Margaret Sullivan. Fun hint: You’ll remember “Mr. Matuschek” from “behind the curtain” in another classic film.

The Man Who Came to Dinner. The token crazy farce on the list, featuring the pedantic, obnoxious Sheridan Whiteside and his band of nutcase friends, admirers, artifacts, and penguins. A fabulous cast including Monty Woolley, Betty Davis, Ann Sheridan, Billie Burke, Jimmy Durante., directed by William Keighley and released in 1942.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue. English majors may remember James M. Barrie’s play, The Admirable Crighton, in which the servants reverse roles with their masters after a shipwreck. This movie always reminds me of that play, except that it’s the homeless, and particularly homeless veterans returning from the war, who are taking over the estate. Released in 1947 and directed by Roy del Ruth.

Christmas in Connecticut. Barbara Stanwyck as a Martha Stewart type, except that… well, I won’t give it away. Enjoy. Directed by Peter Godfrey and released in 1945. (Just make sure you don’t get the 1990s remake by mistake, with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson, which surely falls into my “worst of all time” collection.)

Miracle on 34th Street. Is he or isn’t he? This is a marvelous movie, even though I always end up hating the mother for being so hide-bound. Maureen O’Hara at her loveliest, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and then child star Natalie Wood. Directed by George Seaton and released in 1947.

Note that these films were all made between 1940 and 1947, and imagine them in that context. Imagine yourself being given respite from keeping a “stiff upper lip” through the constant fear and worry of war on two fronts, or the life-altering changes the war brought to so many.  I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons we love them so much.

*Don’t succumb to colorized versions if you download any of these movies or buy the DVDs. They are so much better in their original form.

Photo: Vieux Québec—the old city—during the carnaval d’hiver.

 

 

.

Hallmark movies, redux

Just in case you didn’t hear the news, Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas” is once again upon us. Be still, my heart! Thirty-three new Hallmark Christmas movies plus, no doubt, innumerable repeats, will begin October 28, three days before Halloween. In one of my first blog posts last January, I wrote without shame about my attachment to these bits of holiday fluff. Once I came out of the Hallmark Christmas movie closet, many others owned up, including some of my most “cultivated” acquaintances.

Post-Christmas, I watched with amused interest as Hallmark aired first its winter-themed flicks, then Valentine’s Day, then spring, then June weddings, then summer, then autumn-in-wherever. I’ve seen my fair share of these non-Christmas movies and found most of them to be so bad, actually, that they’re good. Good enough to provide amusement that requires absolutely nothing of you. Good enough to iron by. And especially good if you join in one of my Hallmark games. Want to play? Try these:

The where-was-it-shot game. Many movies set in a particular place aren’t actually shot there, for reasons that are mostly economic. Betcha didn’t know that the interiors in  Moonstruck—maybe my favorite movie of all time—were shot in Toronto. But while in first-rate productions such scenes would be undetectable, Hallmark substitutions are way too easy to spot. You might see a flyover opening shot that establishes a location (Seattle’s space needle or a Manhattan skyline, for example), but that’s where the authenticity ends. Point in fact: There are no mountains in Bucks County,  and almost nothing in that dog show movie looks like New York, probably because it’s Vancouver. Vermont is not flat. That New Jersey bakery is really in Bucharest (which is probably why one customer’s feigned New Jersey accent was so dreadful).

The find-the-mistake game. Whoops! Snow on the ground and summer-fresh green leaves in the background! Please, Hallmark, don’t ask us to suspend our disbelief that much. No snow in December in Garland, Alaska? Or how about this—big-time marketing executive needs to come up with a holiday marketing plan for a corporate client, with only three weeks left before Christmas. I don’t think so.

The find-the-worst hair game. Hasn’t anyone at Hallmark figured out that HDTV  reveals EVERYTHING? I know full well that wigs are used widely in movies because they save time and forestall bad hair days when the camera’s rolling. I get it. The Downton Abbey ladies we all came to love—and miss every single Sunday, by the way— wore wigs for historical authenticity as well as ease. I get that, too. But some of the Hallmark wigs are so so obvious, and frankly, so dreadful looking, that one wonders why they couldn’t spend a few bucks more to give the real hair. After all, Hallmark owns this high-ratings franchise. And don’t even get me started on the male leads’ hair, some of which is just ridiculous—and far from “manly,” in my estimation—even when it isn’t “supplemented.” Who looks like that???

The switch-the-script game. My BFF says the thing she likes best about these movies is that you can join any one of them at any point in the action and it won’t matter because you always know what happens next. Which, of course, is  comforting in a quaint sort of way. You will find only a handful of plot lines in the entire universe of Hallmark movies, and they are “creatively reused” in each of the seasonal series. The heroine gets grounded in a snowstorm or returns to her home town or goes on a trip and meets up with her high school beau or struggling Christmas tree farmer or errant prince or stalwart widower. A rival of some sort—a conniving female or a really bad ex—gets in the way but is foiled in the end, when love conquers all. Point is–you could take the beginning, middle, or end of any of these movies and drop it into almost any other.

The find-the-familiar-face game. Hallmark seems to deliberately go after former TV stars whose luster has faded—either because they weren’t very good to begin with or because they’ve “aged out.” If you watch enough of these movies, you’ll find yourself muttering, “I know that face…” The late Alan Thicke showed up frequently, usually as a rigid dad with unfair expectations. I’ve spotted Patricia Richardson, the Home Improvement mom, who looked normal (which is to say, her face actually moved) and  turned in an atypically great little performance. Most recently, Hallmark scored a coup reuniting Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner, the bionic heroes of the 1970s, in widely promoted but, sadly, weakly written supporting roles.

The pick-the-worst-painting-in-the-art-show game. You may have noticed that Hallmark movies favor certain professions: struggling/frustrated/underrated/broke chefs, writers, and artists turn up frequently. The artists are always getting ready for a big show. Notice that at the gut-wrenching gallery opening, all of the once or about-to-be famous painter’s  works on display will be utterly dreadful, and not one will be anything like another.

So, all that being said, have I sworn off these featherweight fantasies?

Not on your life.

Once, under the Tuscan sun…

I am in an almost perennial state of longing for Italy. Hubby has Italy on his mind as well. The fervor is fueled constantly as we watch our current favorite Italian TV series.  Una pallottola nel cuoro—the English title,  Bulletproof Heart. We watch Euro TV almost every night, thanks to MHZ Choice, which we began streaming several years ago. Every time we do, we are transported. In the case of Bulletproof Heart, it’s to Rome. Tonight, however, I’m recalling a trip from Florence through the Tuscan countryside. And if you haven’t read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, please do. It’s a delight—and SO much better than the movie!

Yarn on the farm

Dear knitting friends,
I love watching your fingers deftly move yarn over and under, around and through. I love that you are never “just sitting,” that even your leisure time is productive, and that every piece you turn out, right down to those dishcloths that last forever, is one-of-a-kind. I love the subtle click of the needles and watching the fat ball of yarn grow smaller and smaller, down to a single strand.

Whereas being in the presence of a chronic texter agitates me, in the company of a knitter I am serene. Knitting is cozy and old-fashioned—there’s a ball of comfort in every woolly skein.

My New England cousins knit and crochet, as did our aunties who have since passed. My BFF has been knitting elegant sweaters since we were in high school. My daughter-in-law’s mother knits for those in need.

My Aunt Lea taught me to knit when I was about 12. She tutored me patiently, through a loden green crew neck sweater—knit a row, purl a row, with a knit one-purl one ribbing. I did well enough, but a dropped stitch was my nemesis; I got my adolescent Italian up whenever I had to rip out a row and start over. Over the years, I made a hat or two and a few afghans, but I never tackled a sweater again. Hopefully, my demi-retired life will allow me the time to become a better knitter.

When my New Hampshire cousin visited recently, she was knitting the cutest socks. She told me that turning the heel was the “most exciting part” and with great enthusiasm showed me as the little puff of a heel gradually took shape. She asked if there were any nearby places to buy yarn that was “like the old days, when you could feel and smell the lanolin.” [I should point out that she knew by name the sheep who was responsible for her last sweater, and that when I introduced her to my knitting BFF, it was as if they shared a secret language.]

I wasn’t optimistic about finding a fresh-from-the-sheep yarn store here in Central Pennsylvania, but  I dug in and searched just in case. And guess what? I was wrong. Just half an hour away, we found a yarn shop on a terraced farm nestled in the woods, stocked mostly with yarn from its own fiber mill. There were goats and angora rabbits and other four-legged friends. We each bought enough of the “hodgepodge” yarn—the mill odds and ends from various animals— to make a scarf. I’ll share it with you when mine is done.

Our trip to Blue Mountain Farm and Fiber Mill and its yarn store, A Knitter’s Dream, from which you can order online, was another one of those serendipitous, “right under your nose” discoveries. Gifted, committed artisans are everywhere. these days.  What’s right under your nose?

 

 

Book club… the morning after

I read many different writers and genres. These days it is mostly, but not exclusively, fiction. Sometimes, the novels that earn the most critical acclaim fall flat with me because in my mind they are generally overproduced, or over reliant on artifice. I much prefer storytelling so tight and well crafted that it doesn’t need contrivance, storytelling that helps me, by subtle association, to understand who I am and where I came from.

I love beautifully expressed, poetic sentences; but I love honest irony, good humor, and even a little healthy cynicism just as much. I love characters I wish I would meet on the street, characters I know I will miss when the book ends. I love it when place itself is a character. I love it when a wonderfully imagined book inspires me to imagine in turn. I love it when a book makes me cry—not in a maudlin way, but because my heart has truly been touched, or because I see some small piece of myself or my history in what I am reading.

I didn’t even have a book club in my life until the last few years. Now that I do, I freely admit that I’m not the world’s most compliant member. My attendance is erratic—real life, as I am fond of saying, intervenes—and I am stubborn about my personal book queue. In fact, I’m probably just a tad elitist when it comes to the books I want to read and when I want to read them. That’s the eternal English major in me. If I have a book queued up that I’ve been dying to read, it will probably supplant most book club selections.

Book clubs take a fair amount of heat. I myself disparaged them for years, thinking I couldn’t possibly enjoy reading based on a group-prescribed agenda. But our book club is friendly and forgiving; we all contribute suggestions, and the monthly selection is pulled out of a hat. Nobody cares if you haven’t read the book, but most of us usually do.

Because reading for me has always been an “individual sport,” I never would have pictured myself liking a book club. Two years or so down the road, I’m grateful that I gave our book club a chance. At its best, it has forced me out of my queue into the wider world of other genres, other writers, other people’s preferences. At its best, it’s almost like being back in a favorite class again. The warmth of the members, of course, is not insignificant, and the patience of those who coaxed me to show up continues to be deeply appreciated.

Last night, after a lively and insightful discussion that in the end made me like the book I’d just read less than I thought I had, the question was raised as to whether we should switch to bimonthly meetings. The group’s response was an overwhelming NO. I was both surprised and delighted at the ensuing comments. That “no” wasn’t about the wine; it was about the books. Friends, there is hope.

 

In defense of letters… in cursive

I’m gonna sit write down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you.

There are very bright kids afoot in this techno-paradise of a world who can’t read handwriting. I think it’s best not to get started on what an aberration I believe that to be, or on the fact that one of the most respected teachers I know wonders, with less cynicism than you would imagine, if the company that brought us the iPad is the anti-Christ. All arguments for the valuable boost to brain development, thought processes, and hand-eye coordination that cursive provides aside, you can decide that one on your own. I think it’s fair to say, though, that the techno-genie is out of the bottle for good.

That discussion about cursive coincided with a trip down memory lane. I was looking through a box of photos when I found the last two notes my treasured Auntie Anna wrote me, just months before she passed unexpectedly. She was my father’s baby sister, she lived on the other side of the country, and for years we never saw her at all.

But she wrote letters that my father, who wanted me to know his distant siblings, encouraged me to read. And on those few occasions during my growing up years when I actually got to see her in person, I already knew her, just as I did my other aunties and uncles.

Soon after email began encroaching on every aspect of our lives, “real” letters became the object of derision—”snail mail.” The magic of stuffing correspondence into a mailbox, from whence it could somehow reach any destination near or far and, it should be noted, record the history of humankind, sadly disappeared. Now that we’ve joined the 21st Century, most of us don’t even find bills in our mailboxes. To make matters worse, despite the ubiquitous coverage of our mobile phones and their ability to send and receive email, we’ve truncated communication even more with texting—for which we don’t even write out words. There’s no longer any mystery to receiving a package—it’s what you ordered from Amazon.

R U home?
Is anyone?

For centuries, letter writing was the link that held loved ones together, even after the invention of the telephone. More than that, letters held the key to understanding historic events and human behavior. Letters helped to keep our soldiers’ heads and hearts whole through far too many wars on foreign soil and our own. They built relationships, word by carefully and lovingly chosen word. They congratulated, expressed sorrow, passed the news of the day, kept families together, inspired and revealed, said “thank you” or “with love.” They shared photos. They contained surprises. they instructed and advised.

They told our stories.

Is all of that lost? Have we become so blasé that we no longer think deeply enough about our complicated lives—or, more important, the lives of those we care about—to write down and share our thoughts with them? To want earnestly to hear about their complicated lives?

Although I don’t have any of their letters, I still treasure the few things I have written in my parents’ own hand—birthday cards, recipes, the travel diary my parents kept. I read what they’ve written and they leap off the page at me, as if they were right here in this room. You don’t get that in an email, or even a phone call, folks—much less a text. Your hand-writing is all your own, and a hand-written letter is precious; it is something that stays.

Lately, I’ve started writing an occasional letter. The response to the first I sent to a friend made me feel so good that I’m making a conscious effort to write more.

In cursive.

Want to hear the great Billy Williams sing the tune? Here’s the link

Roman holiday

I’ve been sitting here tonight with Hubby and Miss Pup enjoying Roman Holiday for the umpteenth time. It never loses its luster. If you need reasons to love it, I’ll give you three, in no particular order:

Rome
Audrey Hepburn
Gregory Peck

Although “iconic” has become so overused as to be almost meaningless, Roman Holiday is replete with scenes that truly do seem iconic to me. After all, this is the movie that introduced not only Audrey Hepburn, but also the Vespa, to the rest of the world. And talk about impact: it gives me shivers when Hepburn’s princess rounds that dark corner to return to her “real” life, as Peck’s reporter, stricken with grief, watches helplessly from the car. More than 60 years later, I still fantasize about having that jaunty Italian haircut.

One of the things I’ve always loved about TCM is the back story, and Roman Holiday’s is fascinating. You should check it out on the TCM website.

When we had our own Roman holiday a few years ago, the streets were crowded with tourists, our time was limited, and it was difficult to get good pictures. I do, however, have photos of an extraordinary and memorable lunch we had, in a charming little restaurant, La Buca di Ripetta,  just outside the Piazza del Popolo. I’m sharing them with you tonight.

 

 

IMG_1239

Photos: Cover—gnocchi in a sauce infused with zucchini blossoms. Below, the menu, the wine we chose, vegetable fritters with aceto balsamico, lamb chops and potatoes.