Christmas Watch: Christmas Eve (1947)
This is our eighth and final Christmas Watch of December. It’s also your last chance to comment and share a post, entering you into a drawing to win a free paperback of your choice from Bear Manor Media. We’ll close out the contest at the stroke of midnight on 12/31 and announce the winner the following day. This week, Samantha and Adam review the seasonal-screwball-suspense-drama Christmas Eve.
S: Christmas Eve is the story of an old wealthy woman (Ann Harding) whose sanity is called into question. Money grubbers want to take away her autonomy to get control of her estate. She calls for her three adopted sons to vouch for her, even though she hasn't seen them in years and has to rely on a publicity stunt to find them.
A: It’s a novel concept for what is basically an anthology movie—three vignettes, each about a wayward son. It’s not a moralizing film but they do make clear that each of the men has a vice: women, money, and booze respectively.
S: This movie is an amalgamation of genres. The bookends are a Christmas movie, relying on many of the sentimental tropes used in family dramas. Act one concerns son Michael (George Brent), a playboy whose associations with more than one wealthy woman gets him into hot water. This has screwball comedy written all over it, and it is a lot of fun. Act two spotlights Mario (George Raft), a nightclub owner on the lam, and his girl (Virginia Field). This portion is a gangster/spy thriller and it is the weakest link. The shakedown and beating are comically fake, and there is a truly awful death scene. It is so bad I had to rewind it and watch it again, laughing all the way. Oddly enough this is the part the publicity department chose to spotlight so the advertisements make Christmas Eve look like a noir film. Act three shows us what Johnny (Randolph Scott) is up to as he unwittingly gets involved with Jean (Dolores Moran again, who we last saw in The Horn Blows at Midnight), who ropes him into impersonating her husband so she can adopt a baby through a shady adoption racket. This is a B-movie newspaper dramedy.
A: Dolores Moran had a brief screen career, so it’s funny we’ve watched two of her movies in a short period. Her last four screen credits, including Christmas Eve, were for producer Benedict Bogeaus, who just so happened to be her husband.
I went into this movie without reading anything about it. From those hardboiled ads with George Raft brandishing a gun, I fully expected it to be a crime film with a Christmas backdrop. From the opening scene with Ann Harding serving tea from a train set on her dining room table, I realized this was lighter fare. Despite the tantalizing trappings of fleeing Nazis in South America, I agree that the Raft segment was a letdown. Ultimately, Randolph Scott’s segment where he plays a washed-up rodeo rider, appealed to me the most. His big goofy grin and Western plain speak won me over. He holds up the owner of the orphanage: “Raise the hands to the perpendicular. I came here to buy my little wife a baby, and by golly I’m gonna buy one! C’mon honey, let’s go to the corral and look at his stock.” I would have watched an entire movie of this ridiculousness.
S: Writer Laurence Stallings also wrote On Our Merry Way, another movie broken up into independent segments. He also did 3 Godfathers, a lite Christmas movie.
A: On Our Merry Way was another Benedict Bogeaus production. He was a wheeler-dealer from way back, making his first fortune through Chicago real estate before losing it all in the Depression. He made (and lost) subsequent fortunes in the manufacturing of radios and zippers before going into pictures. The New York Times did a colorful profile on him in 1945: “Rags to Riches, or the Hectic Saga of Benedict Bogeaus, Producer and Man of Many Affairs.” The shrewd businessman probably saw a lucrative opportunity in the anthology format. There are myriad ways to market the film and plenty of star power (although each of the star’s scenes could be done very quickly). Well, it obviously didn’t pay off because in 1949 the financial firm that bankrolled the film foreclosed on the insolvent production, seizing the negative and all rights.
S: Anthologies did very well on television, so in a way Bogeaus was ahead of his time (what an unfortunate name for him, by the way. I wonder how many times people called him Bogus.).
I spotted the familiar face of Reginald Denny as the Aunt Matilda's nephew Phillip, familiar to me because I've been watching the recent Kino release of his silent features from the days when he was a star.
A: Reginald Denny is great. I’ve learned to appreciate his career in reverse order, beginning with my obsession with the 1960s Batman TV series (where he played in two episodes) and movie (Denny’s final role) when I was a kid. I attended a screening of Skinner’s Dress Suit in Toronto where his granddaughter gave a nice talk about his life, including his passion for remote control aviation. I now have the biography she wrote and that Kino release.
S: Joan Blondell is a delight as always as Michael's energetic girlfriend. Harding is excellent as the determined old woman.
A: I’m trying to be positive and upbeat, but I thought Ann Harding was really bad in this. It got to the point of distraction as I became hyper-focused on her old lady mannerisms, including a tremor and exaggerated blinking. Just from a practical standpoint, I wonder why they went through the trouble of using a pound of makeup to age a 45-year-old when it would have been easier to cast an actual mature woman.
S: Her performance would have read just fine if this were a stage production. It is in the close-ups that you can see she is much younger than the age she is playing, thanks to aging very gracefully and having very few wrinkles. Maybe I was won over by the character so much I didn't care. Aunt Matilda is spunky and stubborn and fun. I've got a soft spot for eccentrics.
A: On a kindlier note, I got a kick out of the scene where Harding and Joe Sawyer (as a private detective) are watching 16mm rodeo footage with the butler serving as projectionist. I believe they’re running a Bell and Howell Filmosound.
S: This isn't the unsung Christmas movie I hoped it would be, mainly because the parts don't quite mesh together and the ending was too abrupt, but I enjoyed it anyway. 3 stars.
A: The critics were savage in 1947. The Times called it, “…transparent, plodding and occasionally confusing.” The Baltimore Sun stated, “Mr. Bogeaus’s yuletide spirit is plainly bogus.” The Washington Post gave it a lump of coal: “Avoid Christmas Eve as you would the plague.”
I didn’t feel that strongly about it but I’m leaning towards the lower end of the scale: a blustery 2 stars for the movie but a warm Merry Christmas to all!