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Off-the-beaten-Christmas path

Sunday 12/17/23

I watched Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake (1947) last night. I've always liked this film, which critics have often treated as a gimmick because we see the events from the detective's perspective, via first-person camera work. Montgomery--who also stars--is only visible in mirror scenes and in these sit-down narrator passages that MGM, as the discontented studio, made him do. Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich alluded to the film and its device in one of their talks.

This was something Montgomery wanted to try for a while, so when he got a chance to direct, he finally did it. It's one of those effective change-of-pace films at Christmastime, a break from the movies you feel almost obligated to revisit each year. 1945's Lady on a Train is another one in that category (both films feature a writer angle, actually).

Audrey Totter is a spicy number in Lady in the Lake, and gives off this feeling of simmering Christmas sex. The film actually came out in late January, despite being a Christmas film. I kind of like when that happens. Listened to a radio adaptation as well from the Lux Radio Theatre, with Montgomery and Totter reprising their roles. The lines are almost always flatter in these things, and Montgomery's are less tart and acidic. That came out in February 1948.

Watched Rudolph again last night and Frosty the Snow Man. Rankin-Bass had these out-of-time specials, and these kinds of frozen-in-time but also out-of-time specials, Frosty being one of the latter, as well as 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. In Rudolph, Santa is basically a racist, a self-serving, dismissive tyrant, and someone who uses people (and reindeer and elves). The Santa of Frosty is kind and supportive, what one might expect Santa to be. In 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, he's downright vindicative (and vein and touchy).

Jimmy Durante is an annoying presence in a lot of films, but he worked well as the narrator in Frosty. The night scenes are the most affecting, and I have always loved the idea of the greenhouse out in the woods. No one seems to operate it---it's just there. The relationship between Frosty and Karen is sweet. Very different degrees, but it reminds me somewhat of the relationship between Amy and Irena in The Curse of the Cat People, which may be the best horror film of the 1940s, though it's also not a horror film.

The 1930s radio serial The Cinnamon Bear is another off-the-beaten-Christmas path item I'd recommend, but this would seem like a strange thing to say to someone who'd been alive at the time, because The Cinnamon Bear was a national sensation. It's about a brother and sister traveling to a magic land--Maybeland--in an attempt to recover the star from the top of their Christmas tree, with characters like the Crazy Quilt Dragon and the Wintergreen Witch.

There are a lot of episodes because you were supposed to listen to The Cinnamon Bear six days a week in the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Kids got hooked, and for many of them it became a foundational memory of Christmas. I believe there's still a radio station in Wisconsin that airs it every year, but I'm not certain, and of course we can listen to it whenever we please now.

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