Warner Home Video has wisely grouped a batch of lesser holiday titles into one reasonably-priced package. Their Classic Holiday Collection includes the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, Christmas in Connecticut (1945), and Boys Town (1938). For various reasons all three films are somewhat overrated, and fall short of being true holiday classics but are definitely worth seeing once. The Boys Town disc includes the wildly over-the-top 1941 sequel Men of Boys Town for good measure, and the supplementary short subjects are worth the price of the set all by the themselves and in some ways much more interesting than the main features.
Only about five minutes of the combined three-and-a-half hour running times of Boys Town and Men of Boys Town have anything to do with Christmas, so their labeling as "Classic Holiday" titles is tenuous at best. Boys Town begins as a biography of Father Edward J. Flanagan (Spencer Tracy), who believes "there is no such thing as a bad boy," and who eventually founds a self-governing, self-sustaining community for orphaned and wayward boys heretofore abandoned by society. Once the home is established just outside Omaha, Nebraska, the film shifts gears and largely becomes a vehicle for MGM's 18-year-old dynamo Mickey Rooney, cast as a Father Flanagan's toughest case: Whitey Marsh, a tough-talking gangster-in-the-making.
Boys Town was nominated for five Oscars and won two (including a Best Actor nod for Tracy), but as a film it's only so-so. Tracy is indeed very good, and Flanagan's story is inherently interesting, but Dore Schary and John Meehan's script leans heavily on cliches and shameless heart-tugging manipulation. Tracy's Flanagan never doubts his cause, and never worries about his enterprise's constant state of near financial collapse. His faith in God steadfast and secure, he lets Jewish pawnbroker-turned-CFO Dave Morris (Henry Hull) get all the ulcers, and both films are rife with Flanagan spending money like a teenager armed with his first credit card, while Dave endlessly but always fruitlessly plays Devil's Advocate.
Rooney's tough kid might have seemed like a revelatory performance in 1938 (Andy Hardy gone bad), but by today's standards is pretty ridiculous, like an overzealous car salesman hyped up on amphetamines. It's a very "movie tough guy" characterization that contrasts the somewhat more believable kids played by Gene Reynolds, Sidney Miller (both of whom would go on to become prolific TV directors) and others. Worse, Whitey is quickly adopted by an adoring pal, Pee Wee (Bobs Watson), a precocious eight-year-old who's very much a male Shirley Temple.
Still, Boys Town is least watchable, which is more than can be said of its sequel. Men of Boys Town is a retread in the worst way, a film with nothing more to add and greatly inferior to its predecessor in every respect. After a year away from it all, Dave Morris (now played by Lee J. Cobb) returns to Boys Town to find Father Flanagan still spending far more than he can afford, and Whitey Marsh now utterly reformed. This time Father Flanagan and Whitey come to the aid of Ted Martley (Larry Nunn), a teenager convicted of manslaughter after shooting the sadistic reformatory guard who broke his back. Crippled figuratively and literally, Ted's a tough nut to crack but Flanagan and Whitey are determined to reach him. In the best Andy Hardy tradition, Whitey decides to "put on a show" just for Ted, with Whitey doing a comical "Slow-Motion Wrestling Match" to no effect.
Eventually, Ted's ice begins to crack after he's given a puppy to play with, while Whitey is adopted out of Boys Town by well-meaning but stuffy hoi polloi types - with predictable results. Whitey also looks into Ted's claims of rampant abuse at his old reformatory, a veritable kiddie concentration camp.
Men of Boys Town would be high camp if it weren't so cynically made and, at 106 minutes, criminally overlong. The film looks cheap; unlike the first film which was partly shot on location, Men of Boys Town is painfully studio bound, with unconvincing sets representing Boys Town exteriors. From the reformatory that makes the workhouse in Oliver Twist look like a country club, to its painful concession to Rooney's popularity (the comedy wrestling match), to the unconscionable manipulation involving Ted's adopted pet and his post-operation dash following a predictable third-act tragedy, this is MGM at its most treacly.
Both films were the kind of syrupy Americana studio head Louis B. Mayer so adored, as apparently did pre-war America. The first film was easily MGM's most profitable production of the 1938-39 season, earning $2.1 million in worldwide profits against a budget of only $772,000, besting other high profile productions that season, including Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Wizard of Oz, The Great Waltz, and Idiot's Delight. Even Men of Boys Town somehow pocketed $1.3 million in profits.
A Christmas Carol is an okay adaptation of Charles Dickens' timeless story, though it's no match for 1951 Scrooge with Alistair Sim, the 1984 TV movie with George C. Scott, or even the 1970 musical with Albert Finney. This version does a surprisingly good job capturing 19th century London on MGM's Culver City, California sets with a mostly British and Canadian cast, but Hugo Butler's screenplay deviates from Dickens' story in odd ways, none effectively.
The basic set-up and many key scenes are there, if often greatly abbreviated, with bitter old Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen), haunted by the ghost of his long-dead business partner, Jacob Marley (Leo C. Carroll) in an effort to spare Scrooge the same fearsome fate in the afterlife. In the wee hours of Christmas morning, Scrooge is visited by three more spirits, the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Ann Rutherford), Present (Lionel Braham), and Future (D'Arcy Corrigan) who present shadows from Old Scrooge's life, and those of his poor employee, Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart), and nephew Fred (Barry MacKay).
At an unusually short (for MGM) 69 minutes, A Christmas Carol rushes through the story's highlights, with each ghostly visitation ending abruptly and other key scenes dropped altogether. A bigger problem is the changes Butler makes for no clear reason. In the original story, for example, Cratchit is sent home with his meager wages on Christmas Eve, and his family makes merry as best as they can, their Christmas feast lacking in size but not in spirit. In the film, hapless Cratchit is on his way home when he joins in a snowball fight. A stray snowball not only hits Scrooge squarely in the stovetop hat, but the hat is then crushed under the wheels of a hansom cab. Scrooge fires Cratchit on the spot, and the poor sap decides to spend the money he has left at once, on a huge feast for his family. This adds all manner of unnecessary narrative baggage to an already abbreviated story, ultimately creating problems later on. (For example, Scrooge now has to show up later with an even bigger turkey than Cratchit's already immense bird.)
The production was conceived for actor Lionel Barrymore, a role he'd more or less play later in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but the actor had major health problems and Barrymore suggested friend Reginald Owen to replace him. Unfortunately, Owen's performance is the broadest of caricatures, one-note and cartoonish, and completely lacking the tragic qualities that ultimately make the character sympathetic and memorable. The hurried pace of the script also damages the film in another key way: instead of Scrooge finding his own salvation with the help of the three Christmas ghosts, instead they simply beat it into him, with the Ghost of Christmas Past uncharacteristically harsh on poor Scrooge for "your ruthlessness, your ingratitude, your wretched thirst for gold!"
Making matters worse is the absurdly inadequate make-up Owen wears, consisting mainly of an ill-fitting bald cap/wig with a comical tuft of hair on top, with Scrooge looking like some sort of Muppet.
Still, the film works in other ways. Gene Lockhart makes an especially vulnerable (if well-fed) Bob Cratchit; the casting of real-life wife Kathleen as Mrs. Cratchit and 13-year-old daughter June as one of their children was inspired.
Christmas in Connecticut has all the ingredients for a classic holiday perennial: stars Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan; character stars Sidney Greenstreet and S.Z. Sakall (especially cuddly in this one), and picturesque sets that look like (but, in spite of claims to such on the IMDb, probably aren't) leftovers from Bringing Up Baby. Stanwyck is Elizabeth Lane, a hugely popular Martha Stewart-type magazine writer, "America's Best Cook" and expert interior designer, landscaper and all things having to do with life "in the country." Only Lane's a fraud, in fact a Manhattanite and apartment-dweller relying on others, particularly Hungarian Uncle Felix (Sakall), for all her recipes and interior design tips.
To promote the magazine, publisher Alexander Yardley (Greenstreet) invites a wounded sailor, Jefferson Jones (Morgan), as well as himself to Lane's "country estate" for Christmas. Panicked, Lane conspires with fiance architect John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) to use his house and masquerade as her husband, and completes the deception by bringing along Uncle Felix to cook Christmas dinner and hiring an infant to be her "daughter." Comedy ensues when Lane falls for Jones; he thinks she's a married woman coming onto him, while Yardley frets Lane's apparent fooling around will bring irreparable scandal to his publication.
Christmas in Connecticut almost but doesn't quite come off. The picture takes an awful long time to get started, with a long, clumsy, and contrived sequence at a naval hospital that the picture would have been better without. (And, in retrospect, is completely unnecessary anyway.) The potentially racy elements of Lane, in the eyes of Jones and Yardley, lusting after the former is under-developed, possibly due to Production Code restrictions, but is really the only really amusing part of the picture. Instead, most of the running time is burned waiting for Lane's house of cards to come crashing down.
Another curious aspect is how little the Christmastime and country setting impact the story and its characters. The potential for Stanwyck's hardened city girl, Greenstreet's domineering publisher, etc. to somehow be transformed by life in country is barely scratched, and the fact that these disparate characters find themselves together on Christmas is scarcely mentioned.
Ultimately, Christmas in Connecticut slides by almost exclusively on the considerable charm of its cast, rather than Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini's screenplay (neither of whom were known for their comedies). Stanwyck, Greenstreet, and Sakall are a delight, and the terrific supporting cast includes Una O'Connor, Frank Jenks, Fred Kelsey, and Robert Shayne.
Video & Audio
All four features are presented in their original full-frame format and look reasonably good for their age, with A Christmas Carol coming off best, and Men of Boys Town worst. Christmas in Connecticut has one major flaw in the form of an early reel with constant horizontal jittering, something that might have been corrected via computer technology. Films are presented in English Dolby Digital 1.0 mono, with optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
Boys Town's supplements include City of Little Men (1938), an MGM "Miniature" featuring the real Father Flanagan (who speaks with a pronounced lisp and looks more like George Zucco than Spencer Tracy) and footage from Boys Town, which appears more racially and religiously integrated than it does in the movie. Girls and Boys Town is a more recent promo film hosted by Executive Director Father Val Peter extolling the virtues of the program and features footage of a much older Mickey Rooney visiting with the kids. Excerpt from "Good News of 1939" offers 16 minutes of a radio program with Tracy and Rooney recreating scenes from the film, and with Louis B. Mayer giving a long-winded speech about the picture and Father Flanagan.
Extras on A Christmas Carol include The Christmas Party (1931, billed on the disc as Jackie Cooper's Christmas Party), an all-star one-reel short with Cooper trying to use Norma Shearer's influence to let him hold a Christmas bash on one of MGM's stages. Cooper's pals are then waited on by a dozen or so of the studio's biggest stars. Judy Garland Sings Silent Night is exactly that, though its source is unidentified.
The disc's most incredible extra, however, is Peace on Earth (1939), a remarkable pacifist cartoon from the normally flaccid imagination of director Hugh Harman. Nominated for an Oscar and reportedly nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, the short is like no other, coming closest to a few wartime Puppetoons produced by George Pal. In a society of squirrels, living in a community built out of the ruins of man-made war (half-shattered helmets and the like), one of its elders recalls how mankind destroyed itself. Beautifully animated (with its "human" scenes resembling the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the early-1940s), this is a cartoon not to be missed, a remarkable work.
Christmas in Connecticut includes a two-reel short subject more interesting than the feature. Star in the Night (1945) was Don Siegel's first director credit after years of editing montages at Warner Bros. The surprisingly effective short is a Christ parable, with J. Carrol Naish the bitter proprietor of the "Star Auto Court," out in the desert somewhere in the American southwest. He and his much put-upon wife (Rosina Galli) are besieged by grumpy, demanding customers, and he has little sympathy for a penniless hitchhiker (Donald Woods) looking for a cup of coffee. But the arrival of a young couple, Jose (Tony Caruso) and very pregnant Maria (Lynn Baggett) transform the auto court with the spirit of Christmas.
All four features are accompanied by original Trailers, all complete with text and narration. The one for A Christmas Carol is hosted by a recovering Lionel Barrymore, who graciously plugs the film in which he could not appear. The trailer for Christmas in Connecticut features the cast directly addressing the camera.
This set of not-quite-classics nonetheless make for several days of interesting if not entirely satisfying holiday viewing. Recommended mainly for first-timers to these films and those interested in the extra features.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.