This holiday season, for anyone who needs a break from the fruitcake, or any of their other relatives, you can hide in the den and enjoy a movie.
To many nowadays, movies filmed in glorious black and white are somewhat of a culture shock. But before you succumb to the barrage of modern holiday films filled with saccharine sentiment, estranged families, reconciliations, and dysfunctional Santas, or one of the two-dozen (but who’s counting) TV-movie versions of “A Christmas Carol,” test drive some classics.
Here are two of my favorite films that take place during Christmas but can easily be enjoyed at any time of the year. They have my prerequisites for great comedy movies: lively-paced, diversely eccentric characters, and wonderfully-written dialogue; dialogue that I can listen to over and over again, like my favorite tracks on comedy CDs.
The Man Who Came To Dinner is the 1942 film version of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s brilliantly witty 1939 play. The story begins shortly before Christmas. Sheridan Whiteside, an acerbic critic and radio commentator, accepts an invitation to dinner at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley while he is passing through a small town in Ohio during a lecture tour. After slipping on ice on their doorstep and claiming to have dislocated his hip, he becomes a disagreeable and demanding houseguest. Since he is temporarily confined to a wheelchair, he takes over the first-floor, coercing his hosts by threatening to sue them.
With the exception of his assistant, Maggie, Whiteside manipulates everyone around him. He does, however, meddle in Maggie’s love life when she becomes smitten with a local newspaperman and wants to leave her job and get married. That’s when the chicanery kicks into high gear and chaos, as they say, ensues.
Kaufman and Hart modeled the character of Whiteside after their friend, the renowned drama critic and radio personality Alexander Woollcott. Whiteside is an outrageous character, a comic caricature of Woollcott’s traits, especially his scathing wit, and boorish behavior as a houseguest.
One day Woollcott showed up, unannounced, at Hart’s Pennsylvania estate and proceeded to take over the house. He slept in the master bedroom, terrorized Hart’s staff, and generally acted like Sheridan Whiteside. When he left, he wrote Hart a note: “This is to certify that I had one of the most unpleasant times I ever spent.” When Hart was relating the story to Kaufman later, he told him that he felt lucky that Woollcott had not broken his leg and become stuck there. At which point they had a mutual “Aha !!” moment and ran to their typewriters.
The printed edition of the play starts with the inscription “To Alexander Woollcott, for reasons that are nobody’s business.”
Like a roman à clef novel, there are several other characters modeled after well-known personalities, most notably that of Banjo, played by Jimmy Durante. Banjo was modeled after Harpo Marx.
Woollcott’s ecstatic review of the Marx Brothers’ Broadway debut, the 1924 musical comedy revue “I’ll Say She Is,” helped re-launch their career after vaudeville and he became a life-long friend of the siblings. He also encouraged them to use their now iconic nicknames publicly.
There is a reference in the original play to Groucho and Chico. When Whiteside talks to Banjo on the phone, he asks him, “How are Wacko and Sloppo?”
The 1934 film The Thin Man is a comic masterpiece based on the mystery novel by Dashiell Hammett, which the aforementioned Alexander Woollcott praised as “the best detective story yet written in America.”
While Nick Charles, a retired private detective, and his wife Nora, a wealthy heiress, are spending the Christmas holidays in New York City, primarily to avoid spending them with Nora’s family on the West Coast, they become embroiled in a missing person’s case. But the mystery of “who dunnit” is not relevant to the movie’s appeal.
What makes the film so entertaining and enduring is one of the most perfect screen matches in Hollywood history: William Powell and Myrna Loy.
William Powell was the screen’s most polished light comedian. Roger Ebert said that “Powell is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance.”
Myrna Loy was a uniquely talented screen comedienne who could do more with a raised eyebrow and knowing look in her eye than many actresses could do with a hundred-page script.
They first appeared together in the 1934 crime film “Manhattan Melodrama,” which holds a special place in actual crime history because John Dillinger was gunned down at the Biograph Theatre in Chicago after seeing the film. He was purportedly a big fan of Loy and he was tempted out of hiding to see her on the screen.
The relationship of Nora and Nick Charles is one that redefined the screen depiction of marriage. They blended sophisticated charm, subtle wit and affection. Nick and Nora were the first couple who showed how much fun marriage can actually be. They radiated not only a romantic and sexual attraction, but also made it clear that they were the very best of friends:
Nora: Take care of yourself
Nick: Why, sure I will.
Nora: Don’t say it like that! Say it as if you meant it!
Nick: Well, I do believe the little woman cares.
Nora: I don’t care! It’s just that I’m used to you, that’s all.
The interplay between the two comes off as so natural that many movie fans thought they actually were married. Powell once said that “Even my best friends never fail to tell me that the smartest thing I ever did was to marry Myrna Loy on the screen.
During their careers, they made 14 films together, including 5 sequels to “The Thin Man,” and the on-screen chemistry between the pair, who often improvised on the set, was key to the success of that series.
The “freshness” and naturalness of the performances is even more amazing considering it was directed by Woody Van Dyke, known as “one-shot Woody.” He always worked at a frantic pace, and part of the reason that “The Thin Man” moves so quickly is the fact that the production was so hurried.
Powell’s first appearance in the film is in a bar where he is showing the bartenders how to make the perfect martini. Van Dyke told him to take the cocktail shaker, go to the bar and just walk through the scene while the crew checked lights and sound. Powell did it, throwing in some improv of his own. Suddenly Van Dyke yelled, “That’s it! Print it!” The director had shot the scene without Powell knowing it so that he’d be as relaxed and natural as possible.
The film’s Oscar-nominated script was written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich , themselves married for over 50 years. They also wrote the screenplay for the Christmas classic “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
Some of the clever dialogue was borderline censorable at the time, as the Motion Picture Production Code was just starting to be seriously enforced in 1934. To wit, reading the newspaper accounts of his being shot while apprehending a hoodlum:
Nick: I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids.
Nick: It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.
So give yourself the gift of laughter and meet some remarkable characters of the silver screen. As Nora says to Nick after meeting a motley group of his old cronies from his P.I. days, including thugs, cops, punch-drunk fighters, “loose” women, and ex-cons: “Oh, Nicky, you know such lovely people.”