Glory Days Magazine Review: MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET

This is another in my ongoing classic film review segment I’m writing in NZ vintage lifestyle magazine Glory Days. It’s a really cool mag, so be sure to check it out here.

600full-miracle-on-34th-street-posterI’m often asked what it is about classical cinema that I find so constantly enthralling, and while there are myriad reasons I could give, perhaps my favourite is the sense of surprise that comes from peering through a window on a bygone era. Miracle on 34th Street is a good example; a film made famous for its wholesome representation of Christmas, but beneath its festive wrapping exists a revealing study of social instability and modern anxiety.

“Christmas is a frame of mind.” So says Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), an elderly gentleman employed by lavish New York department store Macy’s to fill the role of Santa Claus, a position left empty by the drunken incompetence of his predecessor.

Kris however believes himself to be the real Santa, appearing at a time when the meaning of Christmas has been forgotten, buried under the onslaught of crass commercialism. What better place than a department store to remind everyone what the holiday is about?

Kris takes it upon himself to convince non-believing Doris (Maureen O’Hara) and her precocious young daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) that he is in fact Santa. Yet his habit of sending shoppers to competitor Gimbels in search of gifts lands him in hot water with Macy’s management and the nefarious store psychologist Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall), who insists Kris be committed.

600full-miracle-on-34th-street-screenshotLike so many films of the era, Miracle on 34th Street ends up in a courtroom, that bastion of American freedom, as Kris fights to prove his true identity. With the aid of do-gooder lawyer (and Doris’ love interest) Fred Gailey (John Payne), and culminating in a now iconic scene involving the delivery of thousands of letters to Santa into the courtroom, all is wrapped up with a neat, inevitable little bow.

With the gift of hindsight, some troubling issues about the social climate in 1948 are what make Miracle on 34th Street such a pleasure to unwrap. The film is ostensibly about reclaiming the meaning of the season, and representing the cynicism of modernity we have Doris, an apartment dwelling single mother with a high-powered job, the very antithesis of family values at the time. Sure she’s successful, but her unconventional situation offers an uneasy portrait of female societal roles, and the film is constantly berating the audience about how wrong she is. 

Most tellingly, young Susan’s Christmas wish is a house in the suburbs away from the fast-paced world of her mother’s job, obviously with new father Fred as part of the package. In the end Miracle on 34th Street isn’t about whether Kris is in fact the real Santa Claus, but about the restoration of a more acceptable family equilibrium for the time. It can be enjoyed for its seasonal sweetness, but there’s a dash of bitterness in this Christmas treat.

Glory Days Magazine Review: REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE

This is the first in what will hopefully be an ongoing classic film review segment I’m writing in NZ vintage lifestyle magazine Glory Days. It’s a really cool mag, so be sure to check it out here.

Poster - Rebel Without a Cause_02The quintessential teen drama, Rebel Without a Cause works from a simple premise: Jim Stark (James Dean) is the new kid at Dawson High, a situation he is apparently familiar with, doing his best to ingratiate himself with his peers. After unwittingly drawing the ire of a gang of bullies, he earns the loyalty of troubled loner Plato (Sal Mineo) and piques the curiosity of Judy (Natalie Wood), girlfriend of the thuggish Buzz (Corey Allen).

Following a tragic accident during a test of manhood, Jim’s world is thrown into chaos as the guidance he desperately needs from his father (Jim Backus) is stonewalled by his caustic-tongued mother (Ann Doran), leading to a showdown with police, parents, and the menacing bullies.

Perhaps the secret to the enduring nature of Nicholas Ray’s film is its even-handed treatment of the balance between the angst-ridden teens and the confused adults. There’s such freshness to the ‘parents just don’t understand’ theme, as Jim begs his father for help only to have his problems brushed off as insignificant.

The immediacy and drama of youth will be familiar to anyone who remembers their teenage years. The perfect juxtaposition of playing out Jim’s squabbles with his classmates amidst the vastness of the universe at the observatory is a stroke of genius, and Ray’s camera flourishes and occasional Escher-like framing parallel Jim’s inner turmoil to wonderful effect.

RWaC2On the other side of the generation gap, Ray deftly mirrors Jim’s confusion with a warped adult view of the teenagers. Jim, Plato and Judy are metaphors for troubled youth, introduced as a drunk with no respect for authority, a violent misfit with a penchant for shooting dogs, and a promiscuous girl who it’s implied is prostituting herself to gain the attention of her father (William Hooper) respectively.

It’s really no wonder Judy has daddy issues, for the film as a whole is heavily focused on fathers. The problems of the three central teens stem from strained relationships with their dads, and while the absurd level of Mr Stark’s figurative castration at the hands of his wife comes across as a little sexist today, the effect is powerful. Jim needs a strong figure to see him through the trials of adolescence, not the wishy-washy punching bag who spends the most important conversation of Jim’s entire struggle clad in a lacy apron. The desire for strong parents plays a key part in the young trio’s escape to the abandoned mansion at the conclusion, as they unshackle themselves from their ineffectual parents and role-play their own ideas about adulthood.

Rebel Without a Cause is a stunning example of Classical Hollywood at its best, as every element of the film has deep meaning. Dean’s iconic status was cemented with his fabulous performance of Jim Stark, and the tragedy which was to come would only crystallize his place as the ultimate screen teen. 

Glory Days Magazine Review: GRAND HOTEL (1932)

This is the first in what will hopefully be an ongoing classic film review segment I’m writing in NZ vintage lifestyle magazine Glory Days. It’s a really cool mag, so be sure to check it out here.

grand-hotel-1932

Just the fifth recipient of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel is, like so many early classics, a template setting picture in a number of ways. The entwining of stories from several characters is wonderfully engaging yet also deliberately trivial, a simple slice of life from a single floor in the opulent, cavernous Grand Hotel in Berlin.

Following an effortless but undeniably effective set up, John Barrymore charms as the dapper Baron Felix von Gaigern, a shadowy con man intent on relieving melodramatic ballet dancer Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) of her jewels in the hope of paying off an old debt. Meanwhile, the leering General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery) vies for the affections of his beautiful stenographer (Joan Crawford) while trying to salvage a troubled business deal, and all are somehow drawn together by the doomed optimism of the hopeless Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore). 

Every member of the all-star cast brings just the right tone to their characters. John Barrymore delivers a dashing, confident performance right up until he is thunderstruck by love for the first time in his life, and Garbo shows desperate vulnerability and a prima donna’s desire for fame and affection sharply contrasting her own intensely private life. A very young Joan Crawford plays Flaemmchen as a classic cinematic tomboy so common to Classical Hollywood, adorable and accessible in equal measure, and Lionel Barrymore serves as comic relief with work regularly bordering on slapstick.

It is a somewhat hackneyed film criticism trope to refer to location as an extra character in a given film, but Grand Hotel’s titular location is an early example of how a filmmaker can use their backdrop to subtly flesh out a particular thematic aspect of the picture. Goulding uses expansive establishing shots and sweeping pans to emphasise the labyrinthine nature of the hotel before narrowing his gaze to just one small portion. He also gives much attention to the lobby’s revolving door, returning to the image again and again and driving home the key piece of the puzzle in Grand Hotel, a place where, as one character notes in the film’s bookending monologues, “People come, people go, nothing ever happens.”

The joys of decoding the dialogue don’t end there, given that Grand Hotel falls right in the early days of the strict censorship of the Hays’ Motion Picture Production Code. The first meeting of John Barrymore and Crawford crackles with thinly veiled desire, and the lustful euphemisms of Beery are as hilarious as they are loathsome.

As is often the case when reaching back far into cinema history, Grand Hotel might seem familiar to many first-time viewers due to its influence. For those of us who appreciate the past and hunger for experience of the origins of style however, the film is an absolute treat, offering romance, wonderfully drawn characters, and more than a few surprising turns.