Three films sure to bring home that Christmas feeling

Commentary

November 25, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

On the one hand, we have Christmas perennials like It's a Wonderful Life, which seem ubiquitous every Yuletide. These have come to include naughty anti-Santa spectacles like Bad Santa - my favorite in the have-a-caustic-little-Christmas vein - and Gremlins, best-loved for Phoebe Cates' show-stopping monologue about a fatal incident involving Santa and a chimney.

On the other hand, there are movies that use a Christmas backdrop as instant irony for mayhem, like the first two Die Hard movies.

Crushed between those two hands may be the greatest Christmas pictures of them all: Movies in which the spirit of Christmas becomes the measure of the best that we can achieve all year. They're rarely considered to be Christmas films, yet they may be the most touching, funny and Christmassy of them all.

Here are my top three:

The Shop Around the Corner

Christmas Eve as a time when the world rights itself and touches the sublime - that's the culmination of The Shop Around the Corner, the greatest achievement of director Ernst Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson. In their classic romantic comedies (including 1932's Trouble in Paradise), Lubitsch and Raphaelson always contrasted the thrill of instant gratification and the pleasure of the delayed payoff without demeaning either. But both Lubitsch and Raphaelson agreed that The Shop Around the Corner, an unlikely valentine to a Budapest leather-goods shop, was their truest collaboration. The movie depicts all the flirting and intrigue that can arise among men and women who hope to build a life around a steady job and family and in some ways make their co-workers part of the family. Here, love of any kind is viewed as a funny sort of miracle.

So it's marvelously right that the action climaxes on Dec. 24. The central love story between James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan is virtually a love quadrangle played out by just two people. Stewart is the top employee at the shop; Sullavan is a sales girl hired over his objections. What we soon realize, and they don't, is that they both belong to the same romantic pen-pal service - they've been courting each other anonymously, by mail. In their love letters, Stewart and Sullavan are passionately, whimsically high-minded; in their workaday lives they banter evasively, to deny the flirtatious tugs they feel toward each other. They must learn to believe in their own best self-images, to transfer their chivalric dreams to the shop. The movie develops their deceptions and builds to their amorous breakthrough in six sequences that rise and fall with the surprising weight of mini-lifetimes. Stewart and Sullavan - and Lubitsch and Raphaelson - never did better work: It's both elegant and rhythmed to the beating human heart.

It all ends on Christmas Eve, when Stewart calls her "Dear Friend," and she recognizes what that means, and, as the snow falls outside the shop, inside, they melt.

The Dead

The traditional Christian salute to the Magi is at the center of John Huston's The Dead, which leaves you with something rare in movies: a fullness of emotion. The director's 1987 valedictory, scripted by his son Tony from James Joyce's short story, is a serene work of art that also, at a mere 83 minutes, offers a complete evening's entertainment. Without any fuss, Huston ushers us into Misses Kate and Julia Morkan's celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany in Dublin, 1904. For the delight of such guests as the Morkans' college-teaching nephew Gabriel (Donal McCann) and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston), a college dean reads Lady Gregory's translation of a Gaelic poem, Julia gamely trills through a song from Bellini, the Morkans' niece plays the piano, and the renowned tenor Bartell D'Arcy croons a poignant ballad, "The Lass of Aughrim."

When Gabriel sees Gretta struck motionless by D'Arcy's singing, it's one of the great moments in movie history. The scene is hushed, suspended in time. Yet it's fraught with feelings - of Gabriel for his wife and of Gretta for a boy who once loved her. In the end, the cozy claustrophobia of the Morkans' party and the simmering anguish of Gabriel - who must face his emotional limitations and his hollow cultural pretensions - come together with absolute inevitability. You may find your eyes filling with tears when Gabriel declares, "Better pass boldly into that other world, in the glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age." But they won't be simple tears of mourning. They'll be the ambiguous "generous tears" that fill Gabriel's eyes, too: the tears that accompany epiphany.

Comfort and Joy

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