Holidays are times that people love to watch the staples of the holidays. Every generation has their favourites they put on and quite frankly watch without thinking. The films become like the Christmas cake or the poinsettia plant that someone brings you each year for no apparent reason other than they do it each year. That card from someone that you glance at, never really read, and put on your table or office cubicle on a string.
I remember the usual films, THE GRINCH THAT STOLE CHRISTMAS with Boris Karloff; CHARLIE BROWN’S CHRISTMAS with the sad tree that tips over when an ornament is put on it. The skating sequences from THE BISHOPS’S WIFE with David Niven, Cary Grant and Loretta Young are also part of holiday memories. I still feel the cold slush on my legs when George Baily (Mr. Jimmy Stewart) is running down main street in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Bing Crosby singing the song “White Christmas” in HOLIDAY INN (1942) always reminds me of the Second World War. The two pictures I find myself futilely searching for each year to be shown are THE LEMON DROP KID (1951) and THE CHRISTMAS TREE (1969) with William Holden.
THE LEMON DROP KID (1951), directed by Edmund Beloin and Frank Taslin is a wonderful, warm piece of underated holiday filmmaking. It has Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell; both in fine voice and wise cracking best. The story concerns the Lemon Drop kid, (who gets his name from a fondness for the candy) persuading gangster moll Brainy Baxter to not bet on a horse that ends up winning ten thousand dollars. Angry Moose Moran who owns a casino wants it paid in full.
LEMON DROP KID (1951) is a comedy remake of the 1934 film of the same title with Lee Tracy, whom I remember as the brilliant, double talking, fast dealing publicity man from BLONDE BOMBSHELL (1933) with Jean Harlow. Hope, Maxwell, and Jane Darwell play it all for sentimental laughs as the schemes build to get the $10,000 owed Moose Moran (Fred Clarke). Lloyd Nolan does a turn and adds some Noir/Gangster presence . Willam Frawley- who would go onto fame as Fred Mertz on I LOVE LUCY- makes an appearance as ‘Gloomy Willie,’ also appeared in the 1934 version in a different role.
Holiday sentiment runs high in the sequence when the old street woman lead Nellie Thursday ( Jane Darwell) are given a place to sleep out of the snow on mattresses on crap tables in Moose Moran’s casino. You also get a glimpse of the original Damon Runyon grittier feel of the original story and the first film when we see crusty New Yorkers walking, joining along with Hope and Maxwell as they introduce the world to the holiday classic song ” Silver Bells”. THE LEMON DROP KID (1951) features good songs, snappy dialogue, good writing that shows even the holidays can make a good natured hustler into something warm and friendly. I remember this film from my childhood which makes it a shame it isn’t shown as often as it should be perhaps that what makes it special.
THE CHRISTMAS TREE (1969) is a completely different kind of darker holiday fare. Made in France and directed by Terance Young with William Holden and Virna Lisi in the cast. A widowed single father of a boy named Pascal, who are involved in tragic event off the coast of Corse. An aircraft falls into the sea contaminating the water with nuclear radiation. Nothing is thought of it until blue marks appear on Pascal and the fateful diagnosis of a terminal illness is delivered. There is nothing for the family to do but to make Pascal comfortable for the next six months.
How does this fit into holiday times? I believe because it is a something real that people face even at holiday times. THE CHRISTMAS TREE handles this very delicate and grim subject matter with grace. The moments showing Pascal laughing, playing, going on holidays and Holden and Lisi’s characters try to make the best of a tragic situation are wonderful. It is unfortunate that people receive this diagnoses in some shape or form even day of the year. Never once in the film does Director Terance Young stoop to the fog shrouded, John William’s music, back lit style of Steven Spielberg sentiment. This picture seems to be only available in French language version, which could hamper its distribution for some.
There are many memorable sequences in the film, such as Pascal staring into the eyes of a wolf. Bonding with the animals as he knows he is different because of what he has inside. The disease makes you different from the others in spite of outward appearance: yet animals know. The bond that happens with outsiders becomes more apparent in the ‘angry horse’ moment as the wolves race to the boy’s rescue. You can do everything for your children when something like this happens but protect them from what is happening inside them. Holden and Lisi are subtle and brilliant in showing the futility of this yet the excude a warmth that we know will change as the disease takes its terrible course.
THE CHRISTMAS TREE (1969) is not a sentimental film. It shows a different side of a holiday that somewhere, someplace, people are going through or someone they know is going through. It also brings to mind that despite all the other gifts the most important for everyone is that of good health. THE LEMON DROP KID (1951) and THE CHRISTMAS TREE (1969) are two neglected bits of holiday fare, each a little different but still showing the resiliency of what it means to be thankful.