12 Days of Alt Christmas Viewing — #4: Christmas Shopping

I know, I know shopping is what puts the cynicism into Christmas. Commercialism — humbug! “There’s a lot of bad ‘isms floating around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism.” That’s what’s fun about these films though, they’re set right in the bowl-full-of-jelly-belly of the beast! Four of these movies involve people working in shops during the Christmas season, the last has an incredibly memorable Christmas shopping scene.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

(Ernst Lubitsch, MGM) This is my favorite Lubitsch film along side Ninotchka. Both are set in Europe and have fun with a constellation of nationalities, politics, accents, customs and foods. Like so many other great films of the 40s that I’ve been writing about, this is a charming comedy that doesn’t shy away from tough topics: adultery, commercialism, and even war, though everything is handled with Lubitsch’s light touch.

Let’s also note right up front that Lubitsch was Jewish as was about half the cast and crew. The story takes place at Christmas time, but it’s a romantic comedy first and foremost, and as such it avoids — completely — any false Christmasy sentiment. No Santa here.

With all due respect to Nora Ephron, her remake, You’ve Got Mail (1998), is set in the U.S. and thus lacks the continental savvy, dry wit, and all-around elegance of the original.

Set in a department store in Hungary, this is the tale of a young shop girl, Klara (Margaret Sullivan) who is writing to a romantic pen pal (in the pre-Match.com/Tinder days). Her amorous pen pal turns out to be the floor manager, Kralik (Jimmy Stewart) of the shop where she works whom she completely loathes. Klara and Kralik are hilarious as they quip insults at each other while maintaining a veneer of professionalism. The supporting cast is comprised of brilliant character actors: Frank Morgan, Felix Bressart, Joseph Schildkraut, William Tracy, and Sara Haden.

The dialogue slips by pretty fast, so pay attention, and Google any references you don’t get! (I’m forever talking to my freshmen in my head, apparently.) [on DVD and TCM 12/19 8PM EST and 12/24 2:45AM EST]

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

(George Seaton, 20th Century-Fox) Miracle is one of those movies that everyone thinks they know and dismisses as treacle even though they’ve never actually seen it. But give it a chance. It was actually pretty ballsy in its day — the Catholic Legion of Decency banned it, for example! It’s still fairly sly humor by today’s standards.

It’s the story of a divorced single mother, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), raising her daughter, Susan (an astonishing Natalie Wood) to be world-wise and not to believe in fairy tales, particularly those involving “prince charming.” They seem to be atheist as well, because “God” is never mentioned. One can only imagine how startling it was to see this pair of characters at the center of a Christmas movie in 1947, hence the Catholic uproar.

Doris is a high-ranking manager at Macy’s, who hires a man to play Santa (Edmund Gwen) in the Thanksgiving Day parade and subsequently in the 34th Street store. He’s incredibly successful, but he inadvertently starts a Christmas spirit campaign at Macy’s that makes worldwide headlines, just as Doris and her colleague discover that he actually believes that he is the one-and-only real Santa Claus. Naturally they believe he’s nuts try to cover up his nuttiness.

Edmund Gwen as Kris is so great. His Santa is troubled, sly, fierce (he resorts to thumping one jerk on the head), defiant, darling, and dear. Of course he won an Oscar for this role.

John Payne is lovably perfect as the romantic lawyer who winds up defending Santa in a sanity trial. O’Hara has the thankless, straight-man, kill-joy role in the mayhem that ensues, but she’s Maureen O’Hara who hung out with Johns Ford and Wayne. One of the coolest actresses ever. She pulls it off with class and aplomb.

William Frawley even shows up as the political advisor to the poor judge who finds himself having to rule on Santa’s sanity during an election year. Yes, there’s a deus ex machina, but in this tale nothing else could work. Despite being ultimately an affirmative, feel-good movie, Miracle is cleverly aware of politics, advertising, pop psychology, and human nature. It’s just as applicable today as it was in ’47, but accept no substitutes. All remakes pale in comparison to this original! [See in your local theater via Fathom Events 12/20 also on DVD]

Carol (2015)

(Todd Haynes, The Weinstein Company) I love that I can make this comparison:

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I never found love working in retail, but obviously I wasn’t selling the right goods. Like the Highsmith novel (The Price of Salt, 1952), Haynes’s film is keenly aware of the retail-encounter-at-Christmas-season-leads-to-love plot line, and subversively adopts it in this tale of (what was in the 1950s) illicit love. And of course the film is lush and gorgeous and makes you want to touch everything in it, despite an undercurrent of danger.

As the trailer quotes, “Director Todd Haynes transports us to a time we can only see in our dreams.” Amen to that. [in theaters now]

Holiday Affair (1949)

(Don Hartman, RKO) This is a romantic melodrama starring Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh. Every time I watch it, I keep thinking someone’s going to pull a gun any minute, because —Robert Mitchum! And Milton Crasher’s black and white cinematography is fairly stark for a holiday romance, but that’s what keeps this one interesting. It’s like the darkness is a vague threat barely kept at bay.

Janet Leigh is a single (war-widowed) mother, engaged to Wendall Corey (Rear Window) and working as an undercover comparative shopper. Which is how she meets store clerk, Steve (Robert Mitchum). She has a cute kid, Timmy, who wants a train for Christmas, and that’s about all there is to it.

I can’t say I love this movie, but it is fun to watch Mitchum in this uncharacteristic part. Legend has it he took this role to polish up his reputation after infamously being busted on a marijuana charge. Even more odd, this was not Mitchum’s last Christmas movie! [on DVD and on TCM 12/18 1:15AM EST and 12/24 4:15PM EST]

Howards End (1992)

(James Ivory, Merchant-Ivory) OK, this is not a Christmas movie, but it does have a memorable scene of Edwardian Christmas shopping. Ethereal Vanessa Redgrave as the ailing Mrs. Wilcox and gorgeous Emma Thompson as Margaret Schlegel make a list and take to the stores.

Based on E. M. Forester’s novel, it’s a tale of greed, class divides, ill-treatment of women, adultery and manslaughter. Also of the folly of idealism. Happy holidays!

[on Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray but out of print, hmmmm…]

Also in this category:

Bachelor Mother (Kanin, 1939) – hilarious scenes of Ginger Rogers selling wind-up Donald Ducks, and trying to return a faulty one.

The Thin Man (Van Dyke, 1933)Christmas shopping is referenced in Myrna Loy’s brilliant entrance.

A Christmas Story (Clark, 1983) – Yeah, yeah we all love this one. ‘Nuff said. I mention it though because of the great visit-to-Santa-in-the-department-store scene.

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