Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Martian Menace

This is my entry in the Made in 1938 Blogathon hosted by Pop Culture Reverie and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. 

Back in the 30's and 40's, a trip to the movies was like an all-day sucker.  You got more than just one film (and I don't mean an interminable series of coming attractions).  You got a newsreel (this being before television nightly newscasts), a cartoon, maybe even a second feature, but you also sometimes got what were referred to as serials.  Usually these would be a 15 part series that continued weekly, and you had to go back every week to see how the serial hero (or heroine) got out of the last cliffhanger predicament.

Hank Davis in his excellent two part book series Classic Cliffhangers describes the serials as as "classic examples of early low-budget filmmaking."  He even credits the bad ones as "silly and stilted, but always charming and sometimes bizarre."  The serial actually got it's start in the silent film days, mainly with a 1914 series called "The Perils of Pauline", but it really took off in the early 30's.  You could go see many of the action stars of the day in a weekly recounting of an adventure, which almost always ended with the hero in some predicament that left the audience anticipating how he or she would get out of it, thus insuring a return next week.

The serials weren't always well-acted, which explains why a lot of the serial stars never made the transition from serials to major motion picture star status.  (John Wayne being one of the exceptions, who got his start in three serials from the 30's; The Shadow of the Eagle, The Hurricane Express,  and The Three Musketeers.)  Serials are something that I think could improve the movie experience today  I find them enjoyable, and although I tend to watch them all in their entirety in one setting, I think I could enjoy a weekly ongoing adventure if one were done right.

Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938):

Firstly, one of the neatest things about this serial is the opening.  If you are familiar with serials, each episode, after the credits, usually included an encapsulation of what has gone on before.  In some serials this was a voice over and in others it was just a text on screen.  In this serial they added a twist that I hadn't seen in other serials I watched.  A Martian guard appears before a screen and adjusts the screen which segments through four visuals on the screen.  It looks like a comic strip panel from the Flash Gordon comic strip, and to my untrained eye, it looks like they might have even been drawn by the artist, Alex Raymond, who actually drew the comic strip at the time.

Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe), accompanied by Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) and Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) are returning from having defeated the evil megalomaniacal Ming the Merciless (in the 1936 serial Flash Gordon). But the Earth is in serious danger.

A series of devastating earthquakes and floods and other natural disaster is wreaking havoc on the planet.  Initially it is thought that the planet Mongo, which is still in proximity of the Earth, is the source of the havoc.  Flash, along with Dale and Dr. Zarkov head off to find out what's going on.  Unfortunately they have a stowaway in the persona of Happy Hapgood (Donald Kerr), a reporter who has managed to insinuate himself on to the ship.

 But it soon becomes clear that Mars is the actual culprit, emitting a beam that is sucking all the nitron (which I think may be movie-ese for nitrogen) from the Earth's atmosphere. And while the Queen of Mars,  Azura (Beatrice Roberts), is behind the evil plan, Ming (Charles B. Middleton) is also helping.  Which becomes a surprise to Flash (and anyone who watched the first serial), because at the end of the last adventure it seemed apparent that Ming had perished.  But as anyone can tell you, you can't keep a bad man down.

 The reason behind the nefarious plan to steal the Earth's nitron is Azura needs it to defeat the Clay People, a race on Mars that refuses to bow down to Azura's rule.  Azura is an expert of magic, which allows her to change recalcitrant subjects into Clay People and also to disappear at will.  (You would think if she had that kind of magic she could just eliminate the threat of the Clay People with a wave of her hand, but if she could, there would be no adventure...)  Azura's magic derives from a white sapphire which she is never without.

Flash and company land on Mars, but not without consequence.  The rocketship they used to get there is destroyed, so there is apparently no going back.  But Flash is unperturbed, as is usual for a hero.  His only goal is to save the Earth, and nothing is going to stop him from completing his mission.  That is unless Ming and Azura can prevent him from doing so.

Over the course of the 15 episode serial, Flash and friends continually find themselves gaining the upper hand, only to find the advantage disappear with alarming regularity.  Of course, as was necessary with the cliffhanger theme, each episode ends with Flash apparently finally defeated, only to have some twist of fate (or deus ex machina) appear to save him from his imminent demise.

Some things that appeal to me are:  One, the Clay People, although initially distrusting of Flash, eventually become his ally when they realize that he really intends to try to help them.  (The Clay People are, for some reason, not able to do much against Azura on their own because part of their curse is they cannot leave the cave in which they dwell.)  Montague Shaw as the king of the Clay People and his tribe eventually do come around to Flash's way of thinking, however.  And Prince Barin (Richard Alexander, who looks like he could have been a professional wrestler), who had allied with Flash on Mongo in the previous serial appears on the scene to help Flash in his quest.

Eventually it becomes evident that Ming is working at cross-purposes.  He is supposed to be helping Azura in her quest to defeat the Clay people, but what Ming really wants is to take over Azura's throne.  (you didn't really expect a guy like Ming to be a supportive ally, did you?) 

The fight scenes are the only down-side to this serial.  They look entirely fake, and some look like those fake moves they pull in the WWF.  Which makes Alexander all the more possible as a pro-wrestler in a previous life. Even the special effects look positively new age by comparison.

 Of course, I don't need to tell you that Flash and company are victorious in the end.  And I probably don't have to tell you that Ming is once again vanquished, apparently for good.  (But since he is once again the villain in the third serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, that should come as no surprise either.)

Flash Gordon not only became an icon in the 30's serials and in comic strips, he became, briefly, a hero on the radio, and when television was in its infancy, a television star.  He was also the star of a series of novels back in the 70's.  A feature film in 1980 reintroduced Flash Gordon to a new generation.  And recently the SYFY channel tried its hand ant producing a new TV series.  It certainly appears that Flash is still an attractive commodity, even if he doesn't quite become the franchise that a Superman or a Batman might have become.  But he does have some appeal.  Primarily, at least for me, that he relies on his athletics and wits, rather than his extraterrestrial strength or his cache of rich man's toys.  And as long there is an evil megalomaniac from Mongo around, he won't be without a foe to pit them against.

Well, folks, time to fire up the retro rockets on the Plymouth (I wish).  Drive home safely.


Saturday, January 5, 2019

Versatile Blogger Award

Virginie @ The Wonderful World of Cinema nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award.  The only thing I like better than talking about movies is talking about myself :-D.  So I want to thank her for this opportunity.

So the rules for the award are thus:

1. Thank the person who nominated you.
2. Provide a link to their blog.
3. List 7 things about yourself.
4. Nominate 15(!!) other blogs.  (And I am taking the easy route on that and just nominating everyone who reads this...)

So,  the 7 things I came up with about myself:

1.  I got involved in reviewing movies because when I was in my 20's I threw the Dallas Times Herald paper in my town.  On Friday, after throwing the Friday edition, I would make a habit of reading Joe Bob Briggs' (John Bloom's pseudonym) column which covered the drive-in movies.  At that time, drive-ins were still ubiquitous, and most of the drive-in movie fare was low-budget horror, sci-fi and slasher stuff.  Briggs was fired from DTH for making some off-color remarks, but he has still continued his career, and in 2000 I came across two collections of his reviews; Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In and Joe Bob Goes Back to the Drive-In.  (Both of these books are out of print and Amazon has sellers selling them for $100+ a pop so, no, you CAN"T borrow them...)

2.  Speaking of books on movies, those aren't the only two I have.  My collection of movie books takes up three shelves on my bookcase.  A few of which I have reviewed here.  My most extensive collection is the FAQ series published by Hal Leonard Books, of which I have 12 or so.  You should check out what's available as they are eminently readable.  Especially well written are Armageddon Films FAQ and Film Noir FAQ.

3.  I am one of John Wayne's biggest fans.  I can say that because I have every (available) movie that John Wayne was ever in.  He may not have been the consummate actor of his day, but I really enjoy the way he comes off on the screen.

4. If you've read this blog, you already know, but my favorite movies are action and sci-fi.  But I also watch just about any movie that is recommended, if the plot intrigues me, even plain old domestic dramas.  Like my attitude towards new foods, I'll try anything once.

5. Humor is my milieu.  Some people might call it sarcasm.  Fine with me.  But I have such an extensive knowledge of movie quotes that I can respond to external stimuli with a comment that I think is funny. Not everyone gets the quote, however.  But if they do, it makes the effort that much better.  Example:  In the shipping department of my place of work I ran across a box that had "Pier 1 Imports" stenciled on it.  I said "Pier 1 Imports!  Man, this place has everything!"  One person in hearing got the reference to the movie "The Blues Brothers".

6.  Outside of movies, my other passion is festivals.  Locally we have a menudo festival every year.  (Menudo is a Mexican dish made with tripe).  I also try to get to the Poteet Strawberry Festival held every year in Poteet, Texas (about 90 miles away).  And just down the road, New Braunfels, a German conclave, has Oktoberfest.  Anything that features food is sure to attract my attention.  I love to eat.

7.  The last thing is, never challenge me to a Trivial Pursuit game.  My mind is cluttered with a bunch of useless trivia, but it comes in handy.  I remember one time playing team Trivial Pursuit.  Our team was up and the other team drew the card.  "Oh, you guys will never get this." they said.  The other two members of my team expressed the same negative opinion, but I said, "No, we'll get it."  They asked the question "Who has won the most Oscars for costume design?"  Without a beat I said "Edith Head".  The rest of them just about fell out of their chairs.

Want to play?  Just post to your blog, but let me know so I can read your 7.


Thursday, January 3, 2019

Is This Day Never Gonna End?

This is my entry in the Year After Year Blogathon hosted by Movie Movie Blog Blog

"Well, what if there is no tomorrow?  There wasn't one today!" -Phil Connors

What if tomorrow never came?  How would you cope with it? What if you woke up this morning, and you were reliving the same events, over and over and over and over again?

Sorry, you can't pick the best day of your life and just relive those events for eternity (otherwise I'd opt for Nov. 15, 1985 and just endlessly go to the Cowboys-Bears game that was played that day, and laugh uproariously as the Cowboys get shellacked by the Bears 44-0.  But even that would get boring after a year or two.)

No, it's just a random day in your life.  And to top it off, you are stuck in a town you don't particularly like.  And the people in the town are celebrating a holiday that you just can't stand.  What if you had to live on that day for the rest of eternity.  Not just the rest of your life, because you aren't going to grow older.  If you woke up the day before your 40th birthday this morning, tomorrow it would still be the day before your 40th birthday and on and on forever.

This is the concept that Danny Rubin came up with one day while trying to come up with a script idea that could get his foot in the door in Hollywood.  He first had the day established as just a day in late January, but then hit on the idea of establishing the event that transformed Phil Connors' life as February 2, Groundhog Day.  This idea had some appeal because if it actually did get filmed it would have it's own annual tradition already set in, much like Miracle on 34th Street or A Christmas Carol have become an annual tradition on another holiday

Several changes occurred from the first draft of the script to the final finished film.  First, in the original draft, we would have seen the beginning of the movie as Phil is already trapped in the endless time loop in the middle of the time loop with no indication of why he has been subjected to the time loop.  After studios balked at this idea (although director Harold Ramis liked the concept), Rubin added a scene where Phil broke up with his current girlfriend who cursed him with a spell.  But Rubin was never really satisfied with this.

Eventually we got the finished script that we can see today.  One notably trivia piece is that both Tom Hanks and Michael Keaton were  approached to play the role of Phil Connors.  Hanks didn't think he could pull off the asshole Phil convincingly enough because he thought his audience would expect him to be nice, and Keaton just didn't understand the concept.  (He has later admitted he regretted the decision).

By the way:  The movie was actually filmed in Illinois.  It turns out that the real Punxutawney didn't have the right feel for those involved in producing the movie and so the town of Woodstock, Illinois substitutes  for the legendary town.

So how long does Phil live in this endless loop?  Estimates have ranged from 10-10,000 years.  In order for Phil to go from being confused to desperate to complacent in his predicament, and in order for him to eventually become a consummate artist and musician (which he does by the end of the movie), a good estimate is somewhere around 34 years, according to a website I looked at.  

Groundhog Day (1993):

The movie establishes what a jerk Phil Connors (Bill Murray). a weatherman on a Pittsburgh TV station, is early on.  He is rude and sarcastic to just about everyone, including his news broadcast co-host, his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) and his new producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell).  Phil is scheduled to go on a remote to Punxutawney to cover the groundhog celebration and his distaste for it is evident.

Connors is set up in a bed and breakfast house because he refuses to stay in the local hotel and wakes up to the fading sound of the Sonny & Cher song "I Got You, Babe", and a pair of D.J.s telling him to put on his booties because "Its COLD out there!"  He goes down to the groundhog celebration, running into several recurring characters in the process, including the overly enthusiastic Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky), with whom Phil had gone to high school.

At the groundhog shindig, Connors continues his disgruntled demeanor, causing both Rita and Larry to confer that he is a "prima donna".  They leave Punxutawney to return to Pittsburgh, but the blizzard that Phil had confidently claimed would bypass Pittsburgh hits, forcing them to return to Punxutawney.  Connors reclaims his room at the B&B and goes off to sleep.

Upon awakening, the first indication that something is amiss is that the radio wakes him with the same fade out from "I Got You, Babe" and the same D.J.s telling him "It's COLD out there!"  Unfortunately for Phil this is the beginning of a nightmare, because he seems to be stuck in repeating the same day he had just lived through yesterday.

And it's not over yet.  Because the next day he wakes up again to the same radio and meeting the same people.  Phil doesn't really know how to react to this, but eventually he begins to try to explain to Rita what seems to be happening to him.   Of course, she thinks he's nuts or at least just overworked because neither she nor anyone else for that matter is aware of the time loop.

Eventually Phil starts to be Phil and use the inconvenience to his own advantage.  At one point he takes advantage of a lapse of attention to steal a bag of money from an armored truck.  He finds an attractive woman and learns a few details about her so that during the next cycle he can seduce her.  But even this becomes boring after a while.  He then goes through a period where he just wants to end it all.  But even suicide is not an option, because the next morning he still finds himself waking up to those same fading strains of "I Got You, Babe".

Over and over again Phil tries to find ways to improve upon his lot.  His driving passion becomes one to get Rita in bed, and he spends several episodes gradually learning things about her in order to get her to fall in love with him.  But Phil is still learning how to be a decent human being and his lessons don't seem to be cracking through that thick skull.

Phil finally starts to get the idea that he can use the situation to improve himself and learns how to play the piano and become an expert at ice sculpture, among other things.  And finally, he learns to be a decent human being.  But will it be enough to get him out of the time loop?

The movie has some great comedic moments, but it works better as a sort of bizarre romantic comedy.  Phil's efforts to get into Rita's panties transform from just crude sexual desire to an honest effort to get her to love him for whom he is (or for whom he has become through the endless time loop).

Well folks, its time to fire up the old Plymouth again (Say, haven't I said that before...?)  Drive safely, folks.  (That, too...? Hmmm.)


Monday, December 24, 2018

What's in the Bag?

Christmas Eve:  A time when children dream candy cane dreams and miracles can happen.  The Twilight Zone typically had stories that either dealt a healthy dose of "You had it coming"  to malcontents (like Bartlett Finchley in "A Thing About Machines") or a heaping helping of "Thems the breaks" to the innocent (like Henry Bemis in "Time Enough at Last").  But every once in a while there was a good old-fashioned heartwarming happiness, such as what happened to Henry Corwin one Christmas Eve.  As Rod Serling states in the opening:

This is Mr. Henry Corwin, normally unemployed, who once a year takes a lead role in the uniquely popular American institution, that of a department store Santa Claus in a road company version of "The Night Before Christmas".  But in a moment, Mr. Henry Corwin, ersatz Santa Claus, will enrter a strange kind of North Pole, which is one part the wondrous spirit of Christmas and one part the magic that can only be found in the Twilight Zone.

The opening of this episode features Henry Corwin (Art Carney) commiserating with Bruce (Val Avery), a bartender at a bar where Corwin has gone on his lunch break from a job as a department store Santa.  Henry is an alcoholic, obviously, since he has forgone most of a sandwich in favor of six shots of liquor.

Corwin is a sentimental idealist.  He wonders why there is no real Santa Claus.  The poor kids in his neighborhood get nothing for Christmas, and Corwin feels that they deserve better.

Back at the department store, obviously three sheets to the wind, Corwin takes his chair as Santa.  His first kid is a snot-nosed brat named Percival Smithers who when asked what he wants for Christmas declares "a new first name".  (A side note here:  Try as as I might I could not find a correct credit for the kid who plays "Percival".  IMDb incorrectly attributes it to "Andrea Darvi".  The little girl who appears early in the episode is whom is portrayed by Darvi, not the obviously  boy named "Percival".  It appears his name is lost to obscurity.)   When Corwin crashes to the floor drunk, Percival's mother (Kay Cousins) irately complains to the floor manager, Mr. Dundee (John Fielder), who summarily fires Corwin from his Santa Claus job.

Corwin stumbles from the department store back to the bar, but is refused entry.  So he heads back towards his rooming house.  But in an alley he surprises a cat sitting atop a bag of garbage.  When the jingle of sleigh bells jangle, Corwin notices the bag is not filled with garbage, but a mound of goodies.

He proceeds to hand out the goodies around his poorer neighbors, including the shelter where the homeless men are being preached to by a woman , Sister Florence (Meg Wylie).  (One of the homeless is a character actor you will immediately recognize if you watch much old TV and movies, Burt Mustin). The suspicious Sister calls the police and Officer Flaherty (Robert P. Lieb) takes Corwin and his bag into custody.  He contacts Mr. Dundee who shows up and smugly declares that he hopes Corwin goes up the river for a long time for the theft of valuable goods from the department store.

Wait! Valuable goods?  You mean these empty tin cans?  And the cat?  This trash is valuable?  Dundee berates Flaherty for wasting his time, but Corwin declares the bag has a magic.  Dundee demands proof in the form of a vintage bottle of brandy, which Corwin promptly produces.  Leaving Dundee and Flaherty stunned, Corwin exits the police station and continues his role a Santa delivering toys to the poor children of his neighborhood.

Having received the dream of his life, and with  the bag empty, Corwin heads home.  Only, this is The Twilight Zone, so the final twist of the denouement has yet to be delivered.  But I'm willing to bet even if you haven't seen this episode, you can guess how it's going to end. Rod Serling closes the episode with the following narration:

A word to the wise to the children of the twentieth century, whether their concern be pediatrics or geriatrics whether they crawl on hands and knees and wear diapers, or walk with a cane and comb their beards.  There is a wondrous magic to Christmas and there's a special power reserved for little people.  In short, there's nothing mightier than the meek.

I leave you with blessings of the season and hope tonight and tomorrow bring  your fondest desires.  Drive home safely, folks.


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Capra Fights the Good Fight

On Dec 7, 1941 the United States was catapulted into the escalating war with the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy and Japan.  The event that changed what had been previously viewed by Americans as a European War and not worthy of changing the national non-interventionist status was the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.  Prior to that the Franklin Delano Roosevelt presidency had done everything in it's power short of actually declaring war to help the Allied Powers in their ongoing struggle, including the Lend-Lease program, which basically gave aid without actually deploying soldiers to help. Pearl Harbor changed all that.  The U.S. declared war in retaliation and the war was on for the US, both on European and Asian soil as well as on the home front.

Frank Capra joined the fight 4 days later, becoming a major in the United States Army.  At age 44, he was a little too old to be fighting, but he became a prolific help in the battle on the home front.  His major role in said effort was to film a seven part series of films, a sort of counter-effort to the propaganda films that Nazi Germany and the Japanese were creating for their own efforts.  Primarily Capra wanted to counteract the Nazi/Leni Riefenstahl propaganda film Triumph of the Will. The Why We Fight films were initially made to educate members of the Armed Forces for the need to fight the "good fight".

But the films were so well made and viewed by the brass as so important that they were released into theaters.  And not just in the US.  Winston Churchill, England's Prime minister, thought they were essentially enough that he decreed they be shown in theaters in the UK.  And the first in the series Prelude to War was honored with an Academy Award for Best Documentary (which it shared with three other films, but still...)

Prelude to War: was the first in the series.  It delved into the rise of the three "slave" worlds of Germany, Italy and Japan and made an effort to compare them to the free world (primarily the US, but also those nations that were fellow fighters in the struggle.) A quote, which was added before it's release to the public, by Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War at the time, sums it up pretty well:

"The purpose of these films is to give factual information as to the causes, the events leading up to our entry into the war and the principles for which we are fighting.”  

 Ultimately the first film focuses mainly on Italian and Japanese aggression, reserving the bulk of Nazi Germany's role in the war for the next film.

The Nazis Strike: The second film in the series and delves into the duplicitous nature of Adolph Hitler, as well as his and Nazi Germany's use of fifth columnists (Traitors inside the countries he sought to conquer.  It reveals the many treaties of non-aggression that Hitler signed with various nations only to tear up those treaties and invade anyway when the time was ripe. There are some inaccuracies within the film, primarily concerning the Soviet and German relations within Poland.  This was primarily because, at the time, the Soviets were allies in the struggle and it was probably a good idea not to make an enemy of a "friend", but to some historians it does have some inconsistencies. 

Divide and Conquer:  Continuing after the fall of Poland from the second film, we are continuing to see that any pact or statement made by Hitler is only just so much bull as he invades other countries with whom he had agreed to leave alone.  This hearkens back to the Heartland Theory, covered in the second film, which basically reveals that the ultimate goal of the Nazis was to conquer the entire world.  As Hitler continues his drive to be a world dictator, he invades the northern countries of Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium.  France is next.

The Battle of Britain:  After the fall of France, Britain is left almost solely to fight the war herself.  An early effort by the Nazis to take out military installations and ports is resisted wholeheartedly, so Hitler tries a different tactic; attacking civilians, bombing the city of London.  But this blitzkrieg is also resisted by the determination of the British citizenry.  As Churchill says "never[...] has so much been owed by so many to so few".

The Battle of Russia: represents how hard the Soviet allies have struggled against invasion, not only against the current enemy of Germany, but down through history.  Here again the Soviets are cast in a positive light as the good guys because of their association with the Allies, not mentioning certain factors that would have shed a negative light on them if they had been portrayed; such as the Soviet role in the invasion of it's neighbors prior to the conflict.

The Battle of China:  The series moves east and focuses on Japan's aggressive nature, specifically with it's attempts to conquer China.  

War Comes to America: The final film of the series, and by far in the opinion of your humble reviewer, the best.  It gives a brief history of the United States up to the early part of the 30's, when the aggressive Axis powers started extending greedy fingers into other countries.  It then shows how the US gradually changed from a staunch non-interventionist society, in 1936 being an overwhelming majority of staying out of the conflict.  But as the tides started to turn in Europe and the East, views, as they will, changed.  The short history of how the US approached relationships with both sides of the war changed as much of the public opinion changed from staying out of the conflict, to helping what seemed to be the correct side.  The true nature of the propaganda portion of the film concludes with the following revealing statements:

German conquest of Europe and Africa would bring all their raw materials, plus their entire industrial development, under one control. Of the 2 billion people in the world, the Nazis would rule roughly one quarter, the 500 million people of Europe and Africa, forced into slavery to labor for Germany. German conquest of Russia would add the vast raw materials and the production facilities of another of the world's industrial areas, and of the world's people, another 200 million would be added to the Nazi labor pile.
Japanese conquest of the Orient would pour into their factory the almost unlimited resources of that area, and of the peoples of the earth, a thousand million would come under their rule, slaves for their industrial machine. Altogether, the German, Italian and Japanese aggressors would undertake a catalystic crisis, one that would enslave most of the world's population and liquidate about 90% of cultural life on Earth.
We in North and South America would be left with the raw materials of three-tenths of the earth's surface, against the Axis with the resources of seven-tenths. We would have one industrial region against their three industrial regions. We would have one-eighth of the world's population against their seven-eighths. If we together, along with the other nations of North and South America, could mobilize 30 million fully equipped men, the Axis could mobilize 200 million.
Thus, an Axis victory in Europe and Asia would leave us alone and virtually surrounded facing enemies ten times stronger than ourselves.

If you are as avid devotee of history as I am, I think you will find this series extremely riveting.  Even if you only watch it to gain a perspective of the times, it will certainly open your mind.  And you can watch Casablanca, the next time in a whole new light.


Monday, December 17, 2018

Christmas with the Baileys

Christmas movies.  I have stated elsewhere my love of A Christmas Carol and it's various permutations, but there is one tradition that I have had that ranks up there with watching a version of that movie.  For years, on Christmas Eve, on one of the national stations, I think NBC, they broadcast It's A Wonderful Life, a classic from 1946.  I make it a point to watch this movie every year.  Sometimes the rest of the family doesn't want to watch it, so I repair to another room and watch it by myself.

Saturday I had the rare opportunity to go and see it on the big screen at a theater in Austin.  Several things, besides getting to watch it in a movie theater, made this experience memorable.  For one thing, a very old theater in downtown Austin, the Ritz, was the venue.  This is an old-fashioned theater that originally opened in 1929.  It had a run for about 40 years as a movie theater, playing mostly Westerns according to wikipedia,  and then spent a second life as a music venue.  About 10 years ago it was bought and reopened as one of the Alamo Drafthouse theaters.  It only has two screens and the feel of the place is reminiscent of the kind of theaters that were prevalent when I was a kid, although the seats have been upgraded to more comfortable style.  But it still feels like those theaters of old.  Had to enter the theater itself by going upstairs.  That reminded me of when I used to go to movies at the Rialto back home.

Second, prior to the movie, one of the employees came out on a stage that still remains from the music venue days, and regaled us with about a 10 minute historical introduction, including both Frank Capra's and Jimmy Stewart's stints in the military during WWII, and the aftermath in Hollywood.  Most of it I already knew,but it was still entertaining.

The last thing, a rarity these days (but I have read it was sometimes common in movie viewings in the old days), after the movie was over the theater erupted in applause.

It's A Wonderful Life did a decent showing at the theater, although it only barely made back the cost of production. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, but lost out on all of them, most of them to competition from The Best Years of Our Lives.  But I'd hazard a guess that more people have seen It's A Wonderful Life than have seen that other classic.

It's A Wonderful Life (!946):

Things are not all roses and chocolate on Christmas Eve.  Everyone in the town of Bedford Falls is praying for one man, George Bailey.  It seems he may be on the verge of doing something rash.  Rash, indeed.  We see several stars in the sky light up as an angel named Joseph (voiced by Joseph Granby) confers with a senior angel (voiced by Moroni Olsen) about Bailey.  It seems that Bailey is on the brink of committing suicide.  The two call on an apprentice angel, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) and educate him on the life of Bailey up to that point, which is what the bulk of the movie is about.

George Bailey, starting out at a young age (played by Bobby Anderson), has had an impact on people in his life.  First, he saves his younger brother (played by George Nokes) from drowning in a frozen pond.  Some months later he helps his boss, the druggist Mr. Gower (H. B. Warner) from committing a grievous error by giving a local family poison instead of medicine.  (Gower has gotten drunk because he has just received word by telegram that his son has died, so he made the mistake honestly if not acceptably).

And we also find that Mary Hatch (played by Jean Gale) has a crush on George and swears that she will love him to the day she dies.  (Of course, she whispers this in his bum ear which had been affected by the dip in the frozen pond to save his kid brother.)

Several years later, after George grows up, his kid brother is graduating high school and George is making plans to tour Europe before heading off to college.  See he had waited four years in order to save the money and all his high school mates have already been.  (Which makes him, roughly, 21 in his first scene as an adult and if you can accept a 40 something actor playing a 20 year old young man, you are a better dreamer than I am, but that's really the only downside to the movie.)

Unfortunately George's plans are derailed when his father dies of a heart attack and George is corralled into running his father's Building and Loan Company.  See, "Old Man" Potter (Lionel Barrymore) wants to dissolve the Building and Loan because it represents a hedgerow that he can't tear down in his drive to own the whole town.  Potter is that bugaboo of old time-y movies, the rich miser who would probably have been good friends with Ebenezer Scrooge.  (Then again, they may have been mortal enemies since both wanted to have complete control of the resources.)

George gives the money to his brother Harry, expecting that when Harry returns home from college, Harry will take over as executive at the Building and Loan so George can finally go off to college.  Fate sticks her little fingers in the pie once again, as Harry has gotten married while away at college (and he didn't invite the family...???).  And Harry's new father-in-law wants Harry to go to work for him.

But things aren't entirely bleak.  George finally succumbs to the love bug and marries Mary (Donna Reed).  But just as they are about to leave on honeymoon, there is a run on the bank and George ends up doling out his entire nest egg of honeymoon money to keep the Building and Loan from being closed.

As you can guess, just when things start to look up for George, every time Fate pulls the rug out from under his feet.  The final straw happens in the latter third of the movie, when George's Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) accidentally loses a wad of cash needed to pay for loans the Building and Loan owes.  When it all seems bleak, George finally snaps and considers committing suicide.  At which point Clarence shows up in the flesh to prevent the bad decision.

When George laments that everything would be better if he had never been born, Clarence uses the idea to show him just what life would have been like for everybody else if he hadn't existed.  OK, even if you haven't seen the movie, you most likely have seen something of the same sort in any number of TV shows.  It is a recurrent theme, sometimes used for dramatic effect and sometimes for comedic effect.  Just seeing Bedford Falls transformed into a seedy low-rent Las Vegas called "Pottersville" would be enough to transform me, but George has to see it all, including how the lives would have turned out differently for his family, friends, and for Mary.

You don't have to be a psychic to know how it all turns out.  After all this isn't the jaded 2000's that this movie is taking place but the 1940's and good old wholesome happy ending's must ensue.

"No man is a failure who has friends."

Don't miss out on some great character actors playing roles in this movie.  Early in the scene at Harry's high school graduation, Carl Switzer ("Alfalfa" from Little Rascals)  shows up and pulls a rather mischievous stunt on George and Mary.  Frank Fenton, a frequent face in many western movies and TV shows has a scene.  And, OMG, isn't that a very young looking Grandma Walton during the bank run?  Yes, it is Ellen Corby, who told John-Boy "good night" every week for years on "The Waltons".

I leave you with the following: Just a few of what I consider the more fascinating tidbits from an article published on the Mental Floss website about the movie:  Originally the movie was going to star Cary Grant, but as usual with Hollywood things got a bit convoluted and when the rights were sold to Frank Capra he decided he wanted Stewart in the headlining role.  It was Donna Reed's first starring role, although she had been in several movies before this it was her first role as a headliner. The movie was actually shot in the summer.  All that snow is very, very fake.  (and I bet those actors were sweating like pigs under all those heavy clothes, in fact I think in some scenes Jimmy Stewart actually IS sweating...)  And finally, there is no relation to the fact that Bert the cop and Ernie the cab driver have the  same names as two characters on Sesame Street.

Time to fire up the old Plymouth and head home.  I'll try not to hit any generations old trees.  Drive safely folks.