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TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Holiday

Warner Bros. // Unrated // November 3, 2009
List Price: $27.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted December 9, 2009 | E-mail the Author

When we think of "classic" holiday movies, most minds instantly gravitate to Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life. Their charm maintains resonance all the way until now, becoming appointment-worthy screenings throughout all the year-end celebrations. What's happened, with a combination of their stable reliance as holiday films and the influx of modern slapsticks like Home Alone and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, is that some of the other classics from the '30s to the '50s don't receive the recognition they deserve -- even though they ring true just about as loudly as the bells-that-claim-angel's-wings.

Warner Bros. and TCM have come together and wrapped up four greats from the era for this "Holiday" entry of their Greatest Classic Films series, another of WB's successful four-movie packages. As with the other collections, these are merely dual-sided discs that replicate the content -- transfers and supplements alike -- from their previous editions; however, if you've never managed to add The Shop Around the Corner, It Happened on Fifth Avenue, Christmas in Connecticut or the 1938 rendition of A Christmas Carol to your collection, then this is one of the best uses of $27 bucks you'll find.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) --

Long before You've Got Mail, a sappy Ryan-Hanks vehicle, there was Ernst Lubitsch's adaptation of Miklós László's play, The Shop Around the Corner. Alfred (James Stewart) is an apprentice to the owner of a small retail shop, a business-minded individual with lots of luck in Matuschek & Co. and little luck in meeting women. Instead of trying overtly hard to find a mate, he instead relies on anonymous correspondence with a female pen pal whom he tells his co-workers about. Soon after, an out-of-work woman named Klara (Margaret Sullavan) applies for a job in Matuschek & Co. -- throwing her into an at-odds association with Alfred. They bicker and butt heads over cigarette/candy boxes and stockroom antics, knowing little of how close they really are.

Featuring James Stewart in a role occurring shortly before his excellent performance in The Philadelphia Story, he shows glimmers of Macauley Conner in the stiff-yet-amiable Alfred Kralik. He fumes alongside the bubbly yet solemn-edged Margaret Sullavan with great panache, crafting a vivacious dynamic between the two that's cheek-to-cheek sublime to behold. They take a story that's somewhat difficult to swallow and make it sincere enough for us to toss a few gaps in logic out the window, emphasizing their characters' quirks to such a poignant degree that we're able to buy into the twists and turns of their dance around Matuschek & Co.

From meet-cute to reveal, The Shop Around the Corner keeps its winding turns around the shop both well-crafted and delightfully performed. The grace in which the shop clerks (and Mr. Matuscheck) flip from whip-tongued comments to bubbly salesman attitude occurs just in the way we'd imagine, especially with Klara's funny box sequence where she demonstrates the double-edged humor behind salesman thinking on their toes. It also proves to be a grabbing sign that points to the picture's romantic twists, demonstrating that a "box" that's built for one purpose can also be something else entirely with a little imagination. Lubitsch's film vaults Matuschek & Co. ahead into the Christmas holidays with that idea on the film's coattails, a series of sequences filled with heartbreak and overwhelming warmth between the characters, building into one of cinema's more joyful moments in its whimsical aims. Within that, it's magnificent for being both humorous and romantic without stepping too far over the bounds into cheesiness for its own good.

Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947) --

Roy Del Ruth's It Happened on Fifth Avenue is a hive for double, triple, and quadruple-layered situational humor, easily one of the best of its kind and a real gem of a holiday picture. It starts with Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore) offering shelter to a recently-evicted Army vet named Jim (Don DeFore), a guy recognizable by face from the papers for his handcuffed-to-a-bed last stance against development tycoon Michael O'Conner (Charles Ruggles). Interestingly enough, McKeever is a borrower of homes or an unsolicited house-squatter -- a guy who lives in a place that's boarded up or abandoned for a season -- who's making himself comfortable in Mr. O'Conner's mansion, of all people, through the winter.

The two eat his food and wear his clothes, all in due diligence of "keeping the moths" away (in a fashion similar to the payback nature of Korea's 3-Iron, for those familiar), while ducking from police officers nightly in the pantry closet. This fun, coy dynamic in It Happened on Fifth Avenue kicks into gear once O'Conner's daughter, Mary (Ann Harding), flees from her boarding school and flocks to the boarded-up mansion, only she doesn't reveal that she's O'Conner's daughter to McKeever and Jim. A natural chemistry forms between Don DeFore and Ann Harding as the unlikely romantic couple, emphasizing Harding's sleek beauty and demure flirtatiousness. Therein begins the script's dense layering of double entendres and maze-like situational comedy, something that only heightens as more and more people find out about McKeever's "generosity" in letting people co-squat with him -- including O'Conner himself!

It turns into a rat's nest of lies, but they're all in the nature of goodness. Sure, after a while a few holes start to arise that question the buoyancy of the story -- why there aren't any pictures of Mary in the house, let alone the fact that nobody knows what a mega-wealthy tycoon looks like, etc. -- but the witty, tender nature behind It Happened on Fifth Avenue's writing more than balances for that sense of skepticism. The burgeoning romanticism present behind the O'Conner mansion's congenial nature eventually transforms it, and the film itself, into a beacon for revival and celebration, building into a testament to second chances and the warmth of the holiday spirit. Now, whether McKeever knew the truth about the residents all along (especially Mike) is somewhat up in the air, but it's something to consider as he brings everyone together -- and one of the better mysteries behind this warmhearted picture.

Subtitles: English and French.

A Christmas Carol (1938) --

We're probably in the double-digits in adaptations of Charles Dickens' classic story, from the excellent Patrick Stewart-led 1999 TV production to the enjoyable spoof Scrooge and Robert Zemeckis' 2009 digital rendering. Of all the feature-length adaptations, this 1938 version is easily the briefest at 69 minutes; however, the amount of technical proficiency and solid characterization accomplished in Edwin L. Marin's version also makes it one of the most staggering of them. It builds into a breezy yet affective portrayal of the epitomic Christmas tale, one that hits all the right points in a condensed yet beautiful vision.

For those who celebrate the holiday and have been living under a rock, here's a quick synopsis of Dickens' legendary tale: Ebenezer Scrooge, played brilliantly here by Reginald Owen from Diary of a Chambermaid and two takes on Sherlock Holmes tales, is a rich old grump who spouts "Bah-Humbug" at the bare mention of Christmas, going to a party with his nephew, or, essentially, any good will towards men. He has a poor man with a large family, Mr. Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart), under his employ, who works for hardly anything just to put food on his table and take care of his ailing son, Tiny Tim (Terry Kilburn). After bull-headedness and lack of spirit gets Cratchit fired on Christmas Eve, the spirits decide that it's time to give ole' Scrooge a one-two-three intervention punch. He's visited by three ghosts, Ghosts from Christmas Past, Present, and Future, who show how he's slowly changed into the scrooge he is -- and what'll become of him if he continues down that path.

What sets this A Christmas Carol apart, within its brief but bountifully rewarding time-lapse, is its amazing eye for composing the characters and settings within a capsulated framework. It hits the right points -- pitch-perfect delivery of the Christmas Ghosts, as well as the scenery -- with some astonishingly successful usage of early transparency work and production design. Though it's not a color rendition, the warmth of its construction makes it come alive as if it were. The story itself peaks and settles with both melancholic and uplifting tones on its own, and this faithful representation knows what to emphasize. That, of course, being great turns from a transformative Ebenezer Scrooge and a diligent Bob Cratchit, handled with gusto here by Oscar nominee Gene Lockhart. The steadfast nature of Cratchit's Christmas spirit, and the way it swerves Scrooge over to the side of faith, becomes the boisterous throbbing heart at the center of Dickens' tale, fully embodied in this hour-long tale.

Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) --

Aside from a ravishing performance from Barbara Stanwyck, Peter Godfrey's Christmas in Connecticut is little more than a humdrum rom-com-dram that tries too hard to evoke a sense of romantic holiday spirit. Stanwyck plays a Martha Stewart-like role as Elizabeth Lane, a writer who gears her food and living writings to housewives. There's just one catch: she can't cook, clean, or do much of anything that she scrolls into her articles. She's single, sans husband or children, and certainly doesn't own the Connecticut farm that she boasts about in her column. That becomes an issue when her magazine editor (Greenstreet) decides to have a Naval officer, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), stay at her non-existent farm over the holidays.

It becomes a mad scramble to get everything in order for Elizabeth to whip together a solution to this mess, including getting assistance from her friends -- restaurant owner Felix (S.Z. Sakall), suitor John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner), and others -- while her publisher also decides to stick around for the holidays. Naturally, a meet-cute pops up between Elizabeth and Jefferson, and the rest of Christmas in Connecticut becomes about the two of them dancing around their feelings for each other while the Naval officer believes her to be married. Some cute gags, involving Elizabeth's "children" and a delightful musical number involving Jones playing the piano tree-side while she decorates, highlight the successes of the production.

A lot goes on within Christmas in Connecticut for all its 100+ minutes, including a side story involving Jones and his war-time fiancée Mary Lee and a mad dash to get Elizabeth and John Sloan married, and it simply becomes too much to really grab hold. It's all slightly humorous and made radiant by Barbara Stanwyck's performance as Elizabeth Lane -- along with the natural charm from Dennis Morgan, comparably matched to Stanwyck's charisma -- but the hustle 'n bustle loses a grip on reality and powers forward simply on the chemistry between the lead actors. It wraps up nice and pretty with a sweet conclusion that, even in its overly saccharine nature, still satisfies. Peter Godfrey's film is fine entertainment, if a bit on the cloying side.

Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish.

Video and Audio:

Each of the four films are presented in 1.33:1 fullframe, black and white images that speak to varying levels of Warner Bros.' restoration talents. All of them support grain structure extremely well while maintaining nicely-etched details within, carrying over depth and density rather well considering some of the masters' age. They all have a propensity for dust/debris, plenty of noticeable vertical lines, and a heavier amount of digital grain presence than updated transfers, but they're all largely pleasing and accurate regarding contrast and fluctuating gradation -- with quibbles here and there. But, hey, one of the films available in this set is out-of-print (It Happened on Fifth Avenue, fetching quite a bit as of this writing), and the others all range from $5 to $15 in price, so it's a slate of gold considering the price for the collection.

Audio mostly comes in Dolby Digital Mono tracks that are all functioning and buoyant. No audible drop-out errors occurred. As with the video, the audio also shows its age with many of them -- a slight hissing there and a pop in some spots. However, dialogue remains clean and audible for every one of them, supporting the tracks to a fine degree in order to watch the films themselves. Subtitles are available as follows: A Christmas Carol ('38), Christmas in Connecticut, The Shop Around the Corner -- English, French, and Spanish; It Happened on Fifth Avenue -- English and French.

Special Features:

Left: Clark Gable's voice in "New Romance in Celluloid", Right: Judy Garland singing 'Silent Night'.

The Shop Around the Corner:
Cast & Crew (Text)
New Romance of Celluloud (10:55, 4x3)
Great Story is Worth Retelling (Text)
Theatrical Trailer (4:05, 4x3)

A Christmas Carol '38
Jackie Cooper's Christmas Party (9:00, 4x3)
Judy Garland Sings 'Silent Night' (1:41, 4x3)
Peace on Earth -- MGM Cartoon (8:47, 4x3)
Theatrical Trailer (2:45, 4x3)

It Happened on Fifth Avenue:
Bare-boned DVD
Only English and French Subtitles
Christmas in Connecticut:
Star in the Night (21:24, 4x3)
Theatrical Trailer

Final Thoughts:

If classic movies are your forte and it's the holiday season, then TCM's Great Classic Films: Holiday set is about as perfect as you can get -- barring that you don't already own one or two of the films. It contains three exquisite pictures, The Shop Around the Corner being a personal favorite, along with a marginally enjoyable fourth to round out the package. It's a Highly Recommended array of films for the season, containing a phenomenally romantic piece that's inspired several films, a great rendition of A Christmas Carol, a classic, heartwarming situational comedy with It Happened on Fifth Avenue, and an enchanting outing from Barbara Stanwyck in Christmas in Connecticut.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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