Warner Bros. rounds up four second-tier library titles for their new box set "Classic Holiday Collection: Volume 2," a follow-up to their recently reissued 2005 collection. The relevance of these four movies - "Blossoms in the Dust," "It Happened on 5th Avenue," "Holiday Affair," and "All Mine to Give," all finally making their DVD debut here - to the holiday theme is as widely varied as the quality of the stories themselves.
The four discs are packaged in four keepcases which fit into a cardboard slipcover. (The slipcover mysteriously lists "Blossoms" as a "Bonus Disc." Bonus over what?) These titles are also available separately, so let's look at them one by one:
"Blossoms in the Dust" (1941)
A female answer of sorts to "Boys Town," Mervyn LeRoy's "Blossoms in the Dust" is a shameless tearjerker on the life of Edna Gladney, who crusaded for the rights and wellbeing of orphans. It's an honorable subject, and Gladney's efforts remain admirable (the Gladney Center for Adoption continues her good work to this day), Anita Loos' screenplay is a mess littered with stilted melodrama, wooden dialogue, and over-the-top courtroom showdowns.
In this heavily fictionalized reworking of Gladney's life, we first meet Edna (played by Greer Garson) as she receives her first shock: her adopted sister (Marsha Hunt) is rejected by her potential in-laws for having been born out of wedlock; the marriage called off, the sister kills herself. Years later, Edna, now married to the affluent Sam Gladney (Walter Pidgeon), enjoys the life of a socialite, until her young son is killed in an accident; the hardship is compounded by a childbirth injury that left her unable to bear any more children.
Edna attempts to bury her sorrows in the social scene. Her husband conspires to have her care for an orphaned girl, which she initially rejects - how dare he try to make her a mother again! But she quickly changes her mind, eventually opening a day care center, and then an adoption agency, taking in the neediest of children. When she discovers the cruel prejudices held by the state against illegitimate orphans, she rallies to change the law.
The problem with "Blossoms" is that there's not much holding it all together - it's nothing but a loose series of cute children, fancy sets and costumes (it won the Oscar for Best Color Interior Decoration), and soapish revelations. The screenplay tears through Gladney's life at an ungainly speed, leaping over years of character development almost randomly. In one scene, she's reluctant to care for kids; two seconds and several years later, she's suddenly running a day care. (Most telling is this quote from a 1941 review in Variety: "Garson spans many years but does not appreciably age." The Gladney character may be wildly underdeveloped, but at least Garson looks smashing in those dresses!)
LeRoy doesn't attempt one bit to tone down the schmaltz, his camera lingering on grinning children who say the darnedest things. The moppets are adorable to a fault, turning the story into Precious Moments: The Movie. The film paints everything in broad strokes, ignoring details in favor of the overly simple. "Isn't that boy cute? Isn't the Texas government bad for not liking orphans? Isn't that dress pretty?" There's no depth (emotional or otherwise) to this biopic.
"Blossoms" was successful to earn four Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Actress, but, unsurprisingly, not for LeRoy or Loos. This was Garson's second such nomination; she wound up losing to Joan Fontaine. (Garson finally won the following year, for "Mrs. Miniver," and wound land four more nods throughout her career.)
Video & Audio
Colors are lovely in this 1.33:1 full frame presentation, although some dust and debris remains visible throughout the print. Detail is rich, making the most of those lavish sets.
The Dolby mono soundtrack is simple, with clean, clear dialogue. Hiss and pops are absent. Optional English and French subtitles are provided.
The film's original trailer is included.
"It Happened on 5th Avenue" (1947)
Pleasantly sweet in its lightweight charms, "It Happened on 5th Avenue" features an almost Capra-esque story - no surprise, then, that the film was originally considered for Capra's Liberty Films. It eventually found its way instead into the hands of director Roy Del Ruth, who had recently left MGM and was about to enter the downward spiral of his career, with such misfires as "The Babe Ruth Story," "Phantom of the Rue Morgue," and "The Alligator People" soon to come his way. "5th Avenue," which would be the first release from new B-grade studio Allied Artists, is something of a middle ground between those flops and his earlier MGM musical successes.
Aloysius T. "Mac" McKeever (Victor Moore) is a smooth-talking hobo who's gotten by quite well squatting in empty mansions while their rich owners are away for the season. The coming winter brings him to New York, and the home of Michael J. O'Connor, the second richest man in the world. It's usually just Mac and his dog, but this year, Mac opens O'Connor's doors to Jim Bullock (Don DeFore), a feisty Army vet in need of a home. This opens the floodgates: first Jim invites some old war buddies (among them a young Alan Hale, Jr.) and their families to move in, and then O'Connor's daughter, Trudy (Gale Storm), shows up, and in the confusion she pretends to be a poor runaway. Naturally, when Jim and Trudy fall in love, Trudy wants to make sure the romance is for real, and not a product of Trudy's inheritance.
More complications. The real O'Connor (Charles Ruggles) arrives, and Trudy passes him off as her hobo father, "Mike." Then comes Mary's mother (Ann Harding), passed off as yet another vagrant; the parents were divorced long ago, but now, in the middle of this new family, could they be convinced to reunite?
And more complications. O'Connor wants nothing to come of a potential Jim-Trudy romance, so he schemes to block his financial plans (and, perhaps, get him shipped off to Bolivia via a cushy job). But he must do this without revealing his true identity, which leads to an absurd running gag in which Mac thinks "Mike" is delusional, engaging in imaginary business deals.
You can see where this is headed, but you don't mind. O'Connor will be won over by the kindness, warmth, and hard work ethic of the poor (he even finds more reward in a day of shoveling snow than in his usual financial dealings), and everyone will wind up happily ever after by New Year's. The whole thing has a certain familiar charisma in its celebration of the Little Guy.
Curiously, the Jim and Trudy characters are the weakest here (bland turns from DeFore and Storm don't help much). The veterans of the cast, Ruggles and Moore, steal the show with their buoyant performances, while the screenplay sprinkles various distracting asides (most memorably a piece of slapstick involving a restaurant, a wobbly table, and a frustrated waiter) that, while stretching the running time a little too long, keep things enjoyable.
"It Happened on 5th Avenue" went on to earn a single Oscar nod, for Best Original Story - only to lose to another New York-set holiday fable: "Miracle on 34th Street."
Video & Audio
The black-and-white photography looks solid here, despite a fair amount of grain and random dust speckle. Black levels are rich and detail is sharp in this 1.33:1 full frame transfer.
The mono soundtrack holds up well under the Dolby treatment, clear and without hiss. Optional English and French subtitles are provided.
"Holiday Affair" (1949)
Well-worn romantic comedy formula abounds in "Holiday Affair," in which an unflappable Robert Mitchum wedges himself between single mom Janet Leigh and her limp noodle Baxter boyfriend Wendell Corey. The film gets plenty of mileage from the surprisingly cute six-year-old Gordon Gebert, who's able to deliver precociousness without the usual accompanying shrillness.
Mitchum plays Steve Mason, who spends more hours behind the toy counter of a local department store entertaining the kids than helping the customers. (The sight of tough guy Mitchum clowning around with tykes is by itself worth the price of admission.) He's not tricked by Connie (Leigh), a comparison shopper for a rival store; she's none too subtle about getting the scoop on the competition, and Steve calls her out when she attempts to return an expensive train set.
Ah, but Steve's a softie, and his eventual kindness toward Connie gets him fired. The two become closer, and he takes quickly to Connie's young son Timmy (Gebert). The catch, of course, is that Connie already has a man in her life: the honest, dependable, and utterly plain Carl (Corey). Surely, she'd be better off with Carl, and not some unemployed smartmouth. But this is Christmas, and anything can happen.
"Holiday Affair" sticks rather closely to the formula that would still work for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan decades later, and for all its occasional surprises (both men are blunt about their rivalry in delightfully unexpected ways), you'll never been less than two steps ahead of the plot.
No matter. Isobel Lennart's screenplay (working from a story by John D. Weaver) knows full well that we know full well how things will end, so it spends its time instead playing with the lightness of character interaction. Mitchum makes a terrific romantic lead precisely because of his Mitchum-ness - his Steve never falls for sappy actions or cheap sentiment; instead, he offers his feelings straight up. His interplay with Leigh's Connie is a sweet treat, carrying the movie through its more routine segments.
The movie's most endearing moment comes late in the story, when Timmy takes a solo trip downtown to meet the head of the department store where all the trouble started; it's sweet without being sugary. Other clever sequences include Harry Morgan as a beleaguered cop and Griff Barnett and Esther Dale as Connie's parents, who deliver a lovely holiday toast.
Video & Audio
"Holiday Affair" looks a little flat and washed out in this black-and-white 1.33:1 full frame transfer. A few scenes reveal the occasional print speckle, and the screen contains some flicker from time to time - nothing to distract too much, but there's obviously no restoration work here.
The Dolby mono soundtrack fares much better, clean and vibrant despite the single channel. Optional English and French subtitles are provided.
"All Mine to Give" (1957)
"All Mine to Give" remains one of the strangest, most off-putting Christmas-themed tearjerkers ever conceived. It spends its first hour telling the simple tale of Scottish immigrants (Cameron Mitchell and Glynis Johns) who settle in 1850s Wisconsin; their life is hard but rewarding, especially as their family grows over the years with six children. The story doesn't really go anywhere, but it's enjoyable watching the charismatic clan muster through harsh winters and happy summers.
And then, well, hmm. I suppose a spoiler warning should go into effect here, although all plot summaries regarding the film mention "tragedy striking," which should clue you in early. Dad dies, then mom - and ma's funeral is held on Christmas Eve, just to rub it in. Mom's deathbed request to oldest son Robbie (Rex Thompson) was for him to find good homes for all the children, and Robbie figures the best plan of action is to do all his sibling dumping on Christmas, because people are more willing to do nice things on Christmas, the suckers.
The last half hour becomes a mad rush around the small town, as Robbie pounds on doors, puts on the sad face, and asks his neighbors if they'd be so kind as to take care of his sister for the next ten years or so. Director Allen Reisner (who would go on to a lengthy career directing television shows; this was his first of very few features) milks the melodrama for all it's worth, yet plows through other elements: actual decision-making is a split-second affair, followed by drawn out teary-eyed sap.
The script (inspired, reportedly, by a true story) cranks up the clumsy manipulation by tossing us a villain in the form of a shrewish hag (dressed in black!) who wants to steal one of the girls because she doesn't trust a twelve-year-old's judgment. We're also thrown some weird comic relief, like when one of the boys gets stuck moving in with a house filled with the very girls who earlier were out to romance him, and ain't that hilarious? (Imagine the sexual awkwardness in that home in a few years!)
At least when the parents were alive, we could trust on the lively talents of Mitchell and Johns to get us through the script's many bland patches and inconceivable gaffes (raised by parents with a thick Scottish brogue and surrounded by siblings with American voices, Robbie speaks clearly with an English accent - huh?). Once the grownups kick off, we're left with nothing but shameless melodrama and cloying brats. (Not even Patty McCormack, fresh off "The Bad Seed," can help things.)
The film's working title, used for its UK release, is more to the point: "The Day They Gave Babies Away." Subtle it sure isn't, but neither is "All Mine to Give," a mediocre family drama that wastes its few good fortunes on a final third that's as creepy as it is heavy-handed.
Video & Audio
The Technicolor image looks very solid in this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Grain is minimal, and detail is rich.
Once again, the Dolby mono soundtrack comes through quite cleanly and clearly. Optional English and French subtitles are provided.
Despite a decent list price that makes up for the barebones presentation, the movies themselves are too uneven in quality to demand repeat viewings. If you have a favorite in this set, you can always buy it on its own; as for the whole collection, you'll do fine to simply Rent It.