Wednesday, December 21, 2011


locked up
by Douglas Messerli

Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (screenplay, based on the play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman), William Keighley (director) The Man Who Came to Dinner / 1942

Every year at Christmas time at our home we watch The Man Who Came to Dinner, the wonderful comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Even though this film takes place at Christmas, however, the movie has very little to do with the holiday, and is almost as far removed from the happiness of the season as it could be.

    In fact, this time viewing the film I was struck at just how removed this comedy is from any joy. Although it often howlingly funny, underneath, it is more of dark comedy akin to Buñuel's  The Exterminating Angel than it is to the family farce of this play righting pair, You Can't Take It with You! The movie is so popular that I need not, I hope, repeat the plot. Although the film is filled with numerous plot complications, it actually has only one major event, repeated at the film's end: Sheridan Whiteside (inspired by Alexander Woolcott) comes to Medalia, Ohio, presumably to give a lecture, but falls on the ice-filled stoop of the Stanley family's home, whereupon a local doctor declares that he must be wheel-chair bound until he heals some days later.

     Although extremely popular in the media, having a weekly radio show, Whiteside (wonderfully played by Monte Woolley in large, campy gestures) is a tyrant who puts his own welfare over concerns for anyone else; so monstrous is his surface behavior that it is almost impossible to imagine how a sweet woman like Maggie Cutler (played against type by Bette Davis) can stand to be in his employ. As she, herself, comments: "You know, Sheridan, you have one great advantage over everyone else in the world. You've never had to meet Sheridan Whiteside." The poor Stanley family, Ernest, Daisy and their two children (the parents acted by Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell) are horrified by the situation, as Whiteside threatens to sue them, and insists upon taking over their library, living room, and front entrance, while they are assigned a back stairs and confined to their own bedrooms.

     In short, the Stanley family is locked away in their own house, just as Whiteside is locked up in a small hick town which he has not even wanted to visit ('I simply will not sit down to dinner with midwestern barbarians. I think too highly of my digestive system.") The house, in fact, has become a kind of penitentiary, reiterated by the behavior of the completely flustered Nurse Preen (Mary Wickes) and the Stanley children, who, each for their own reasons desire to leave home, the daughter being in love with a union agitator whom her businessman father detests, and the would-be photographer son desiring new scenes and subjects for his art.

      The theme of imprisonment is played out again and again in this work. Whiteside, it is suggested, is fascinated by criminal activity, and invites several inmates from a nearby penitentiary for lunch—much to the horror, of course, of the locked-away Stanleys. Throughout the movie, Whiteside is sent presents—penguins, an octopus, and a mummy case—the first two contained in crates while the latter is itself a kind of coffin.

     Meanwhile, Maggie becomes involved with the local editor of the town newspaper, the affable Bertram H. Jefferson (Richard Travis), and for the first time after years of exciting travel, suddenly seeks to settle down into this small town and marry, another kind of imprisonment—at least to Whiteside's way of thinking. Jefferson has also written "the great American play," which helps Whiteside lure Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) from vacationing in Florida to Ohio, hoping she will bollix up Maggie's plans. By the end of the film, having caused a series of disastrous situations, he must also lock away Lorraine and ship her off in a plane.

     Finally, the Stanley home has itself another kind of prisoner, Harriet, an aunt who, as a young woman, killed—like Lizzie Borden—her mother and father. She is also imprisoned in the family secrecy of her past.

     When the penguins escape their crate, they are quickly rounded up and impounded once more by the doctor and nurse. When the children both bolt the home, Ernest Stanley quickly tracks them and returns them home. Suddenly one can comprehend, perhaps, Harriet's childhood actions, and may help explain her strange behavior.

     Only two people, it appears, can come and go at will, but both these, like Sheridan Whiteside, are so self-centered that they cannot escape themselves. Carlton Beverly (based on Noël Coward, performed by Reginald Gardiner) drops by to see Whiteside, but talks of hardly anyone but himself:

 I have very little time, and so the conversation will entirely be about me and I shall love it.

Banjo (inspired by Harpo Marx, wonderfully played by Jimmy Durante) can barely sit still for more than a moment, "Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, and still have the feeling that you wanted to stay," imitating the "I must be going" phrase of Groucho in Animal Crackers. Both visitors conspire to help Maggie to escape Whiteside's grasp so that she might enter matrimonial bonds.

     Even the two servants, cook and butler, hoping to escape the Stanley household by taking up service in Whiteside's home, remain locked away, as Whiteside, finally leaving the Stanley mansion, once again falls on the ice. Like the figures in The Exterminating Angel, no one in this work can leave his self-imposed entrapment.

     With such a marvelous cast, however, who cares? Even though director William Keighley has done little to transfer this stage-bound work into film, we might wish to watch these poor trapped beings play out their destinies again and again.

Los Angeles, December 18, 2011
Reprinted from American Cultural Treastures (December 2011).

Saturday, December 3, 2011


born again
by Douglas Messerli

George Seaton (screenplay, based on a story by Valentine Davies), George Seaton (director) Miracle on 34th Street / 1947

 I’ll begin by admitting that I absolutely enjoy George Seaton’s and Valentine Davies’ holiday fantasy, Miracle on 34th Street. I have probably watched this film every year of my adult life on Thanksgiving day or during the Christmas season, and I get delight just imagining that I might have been able witness the premiere of this film as a 6-month old baby. 

    This year, watching it just before Thanksgiving dinner, however, I had a different, more contrarian view of the holiday chestnut, listed in the National Film Registry.

    Let me start by saying the obvious, a cliché spouted each year by thousands of religious Americans, particularly, one imagines, by those who describe themselves as “born again:” the Christmas season has increasingly become commercialized, and most Americans have lost the sense of the holiday’s true focus, the birth of Christ.

     Admittedly, I am not among those religious or “born again” Americans, but even I was appalled when the Christmas shopping season, it was announced, would began this year not on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving, but at midnight. A local radio station began 24 hour programming of Christmas carols (most of them centered on the holiday festivities instead of the child in Bethlehem) two weeks ago!

     Generally recognized as the emblem of that pagan, commercialized Christmas is Santa Claus, the jolly, fat Dutch gift-giving Sinterklaas. You remember him, the one about whom your parents lied, leading you on to believe that he was the source of all of those lovely Christmas presents beneath the tree until you grew old to appreciate the loving care they had been secretly showing you for all those years? As I have written elsewhere, I came to that realization, almost miraculously one morning, at a far younger age than most of my peers; it didn’t bother me one little bit that there wasn’t any Santa Claus and that my parents had been so nice to me for all those years. But my revelation of that fact to a school friend, sent her off crying into her mother’s arms. I was told that I must never reveal the truth to anyone my age or younger. But even older children, I realized, might not like to hear my discovery.

     Seaton’s work, however, begins almost at the opposite end of the equation. The young girl at the center of this story, Susan Walker (Natalie Wood), has been told by her level-headed mother, Doris (Maureen O’Hara) that there is no Santa Claus, without any noticeable effect in the child’s demeanor. Mrs. Walker, who works at Macy’s, coordinating the all-important Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, is apparently a strong-headed and practical woman, who has, one imagines, tried to remove almost all fantasy and myth from her young daughter’s life. She has told that there are no giants, and the girl is discouraged from reading “fairy tales.” Obviously, the mother has been hurt by what she perceives as the fantasies of her married life. One wonders how she has dealt with Christian myths, including the child born in a stable. But fortunately, for the survival of the film, Seaton has skirted that issue and, indeed, all issues having to deal with the real season’s purpose.

    The film begins with a seemingly pernickety old man scolding a young window dresser for putting the reindeer in the wrong places in relation to his store’s depiction of Santa and sleigh. The man, Kris Kringel (the marvelous Edmund Gwenn), we soon discover, is very particular when it comes to all things about Santa. After all he believes he is Kris Kringel, Santa. It is, as the doctor to the nursing home where Kris lives later assures us, a quite harmless delusion, one that only leads him to do good. But everything is soon made much more complicated when Kris accidentally encounters, during the early moments of the Macy parade, that the man hired to play Santa Claus—the traditional star of the event (even today, as I watched the parade, the bands, floats, balloons, and other theater and vaudeville events, the parade culminated with Santa’s arrival)—is absolutely soused! Reporting the man’s condition to Mrs. Walker, Kris seems a natural to replace the drunk Santa. After all, he even looks like a well-trimmed and tailored Santa. It is almost inevitable that Mrs. Walker should invite him to portray Santa, since, he declares, he has certainly had experience.

     Meanwhile, Doris’ daughter, Susan is watching the parade from a neighbor’s window, from what we might presume is a Central Park West apartment. Today we might worry about the fact that she is watching this with an adult male, Fred Gailey (John Payne)—although we have been reassured by the Walker’s maid that she has been keeping an eye on the girl—who occupies an apartment across the way. The Santa Claus, declares Susan, is quite convincing, far better than the one of the year before. Gailey is a bit troubled by her mature dismissal of Santa, as well as giants, but is not beyond encouraging her to invite him to dinner in the Walker home. Mr. Gailey may be a happy man (the old fashioned meaning of “gay”), but he is represented as bit disturbing in his forward behavior. His “move” on the daughter, clearly, is also a move on her somewhat cynical mother. Nonetheless, he is invited to dinner.

     Kris, meanwhile, not only looks the part of the perfect Santa, but is quickly hired by Macy’s to become their Department Store Santa. Kris is delighted to be able to return to his rightful place, and everyone seems happy with his “acting,” until it is discovered that he has been telling some parents to purchase their children’s gifts at competing stores—even Gimbels. The scene where Thelma Ritter (in one of her first film roles) stops to thank the floor manager for their unusual new policy, where they put the spirit of Christmas, so it appears, before their own financial gain, is one of the most delightful of the film.

       Such radical behavior is, expectedly, met with horror, until both the floor manager, Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tongue) and Mrs. Walker, summoned to Mr. Macy’s office, are surprised to discover that their boss loves the idea, realizing that it will result in even more gift-paying customers. In another assault on the Walker family, Gailey encourages Susan to wait in line to see Santa, before dropping her off to her mother’s office. The girl is skeptical, until she hears Kris speak and sing to a young Dutch orphan in her original language. Doris’s response is predictable: “Susan, I speak French, but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc.”

      To back her up, Doris summons their Santa, encouraging him to tell Susan that he is not really Santa Claus, but when he insists that he is, she demands his file, wherein she discovers that he goes under the name of Kris Kringel and declares his birthplace as the North Pole. A visit to the store psychologist is ordered for Kris, who passes all the tests with great aplomb, yet raising the ire of the psychologist, Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) who throughout the interview pulls at his eyebrows (a trait shared by his secretary), by suggesting that something may be problematic in his home life. In retaliation, Sawyer suggests that Kris may have a latent hostility that could break out at any time. A call to the doctor who heads the Long Island nursing home where Kris has been living, brings reassurances from Dr. Pierce (James Seay), who also suggests it may be easier if Kris can find a place to stay nearer to the store in Manhattan. Before you can say Kris Kringel, Gailey has invited the old man to share his bedroom, further insinuating his being into the Walker’s life.

      As the old gent speaks to Susan, he is saddened to learn that she does not believe in his existence and that she has been spurned by her playmates for being unable to imagine herself as an animal. “But I am not an animal,” she declares, after which he patiently teaches her how to pretend to be a monkey. It is clear that he has taken on the Walkers as a kind of test case:

 …Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind…and that’s what’s
 been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, maybe I can do
 something about it.

 Kris even repeats the sentiments I stated earlier in this essay, disparaging the commercialism of the holiday—a strange thing for that emblem of the commercial to do; but it is clear the director and writer want to both ways.

     Soon after Kris discovers that a beloved young janitor, Alfred (Alvin Greenman) has also been seeing the mean-spirited Sawyer, who suggests that Alfred has psychological problems simply for wanting to play Santa Claus at his neighborhood YMCA. Furious with the abuse of this good-hearted boy, Kris charges into Sawyer’s office, accusing him of malpractice and hitting him over the head with his cane. The violence Sawyer has predicted has, alas, become reality, and Kris is sent to Bellvue Psychiatric Hospital for evaluation, believing that Mrs. Walker has been behind the decision.

     Despairing of the lack of faith she has shown, Kris purposely fails the psychiatric examination, and is destined to be locked away. Almost everyone knows the rest of the story, how Gailey takes on Kris’s case, fighting to convince a disbelieving world and court that Kris Kringel is truly Santa Claus. Even Mrs. Walker and her daughter come round to support his cause.

      The case is miraculously won due, in part, to the political exigencies of court. As the Pol Charles Halloran (William Frawley) puts it to Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart):

All right, you go back and tell them that the New York State
Supreme Court rules there’s no Santa Claus. It’s all over the papers.
The kids read it and they don’t hang up their stockiings. Now what
happens to all the toys that are supposed to be in those stockings.
Nobody buys them. The toy manufactures are going to like that; so
they have to lay off a lot of their employees, union employees. Now
you got the CIO and AF of L against you and they’re going to
adore you for it and they’re going to say it with votes. Oh, and the
department stores are going to love you too and the Christmas card
makers and the candy companies. Ho ho, Henry, you’re going to be
an awful popular fella. And what about the Salvation Army? Why,
they got a Santa Claus on every corner, and they’re taking a fortune.

So much for Kringel’s dismay for the commercialism of Christmas! Perhaps no clearer statement of the relationship of the fat, jolly, fellow and money has ever been made. Harper’s children even hate him, and Gailey calls the young son of District Attorney Thomas Mara to testify that his father has told, assuredly, that there is a Santa Claus.

     Even more cynical are the US Postal employees, tired of all the unclaimed mail addressed to Santa Claus, who win the day for Gailey and Kris Kringel by forwarding dozens of sacks of letters to the courthouse, providing the Judge with an easy way out:

Uh, since the United States Government declares this man to be
Santa Claus, this court will not dispute it. Case dismissed.

So, insists Seaton’s film, Santa Claus, despite all evidence to the contrary, is alive and well. Yet Seaton and the original author go even further, demanding of even the adult characters and viewers their utter belief in the commercial emblem. When asked what she might like for Christmas, Susan pulls out an advertisement for a suburban Long Island home. Even Kris Kringel is a bit stunned by her demand, when he suggests, “…Don’t you see, dear? Some children wish for things they couldn’t possibly use like real locomotives or B-29.s.” Her retort is the stubborn insistence of any spoiled consumer:

 If you’re really Santa Claus, you can get it for me. And if you can’t,
 you’re only a nice man with a white beard like mother said.

     The filmmakers hardly pause to take in the significance of what the child has just said, before Kris has sent the three traveling along a route that winds by the house of her dreams. Upon glimpsing it, Susan demands they stop and runs into the home as if she already owned it. How can Mr. Gailey and Mrs. Walker resist such a consumer dream, even if it means giving up their perfectly nice apartments, overlooking the parade route, and now probably worth millions of dollars? They will simply have to marry, move to the suburbs, and build on the little family with which they have begun. The discovery of Kris’s cane left near the fireplace convinces them surely—as “born again” Christian’s zealous rediscovery of Christ—of Santa Claus’ existence, just as the audience is bathed with consumer assurances that this is, in fact, the perfect house.

     Perhaps never in the whole of Hollywood productions was there a more central pitching of consumer products. Even movies with thousands of “product placements” cannot match, Nathalie Wood’s answer to Kris’ question of where she had found the lovely sweater she is wearing: “My mother got on sale it at Macy’s.”

     During an ad between events of this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Macy’s proudly quoted that line among other cinematic mentions of the august department store.

     As Susan chants to herself: “I believe…I believe…it’s silly, but I believe.”

Los Angeles, Thanksgiving 2011