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Scenes of the Season: It’s a Wonderful Life

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Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, has become one of the most watched films of the holiday season.  I can remember years when it seemed like it was showing on a loop—at least if you had cable.  This year, astonishingly, it doesn’t seem to be showing anywhere.  I know that can’t be right. Can it?

It hardly seems necessary to say anything about it—like Casablanca it’s one of those movies that even if you’ve never seen it, you probably still know the gist of it.

[mild spoiler alert] James Stewart is George Bailey, a small town guy with big dreams. He wants to shake that small town dust off his feet and see the world. And build things. Then he meets Mary (Donna Reed). Life seems pretty good, despite the fact that he never does get out of that small town. He runs the Savings & Loan that his father started and is the most popular guy in town. It’s Christmas Eve, and his brother  is returning for the holidays after being given the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism during the war. But then things go terribly wrong over the course of Christmas Eve, and he ends up wishing he’d never been born. And an angel grants his wish.

The scenes where George meets Mary and where they decide to marry are alone worth the price of admission. And if you’ve wondered who Donna Reed was and why she had her own TV show, you’ll find out.

The film was a bit of a box office dud when it came out. It’s not as tight as other Capra movies; at 125 minutes it feels a bit long, and could have used some editing. And Capra’s corn-fed populism seemed to have run its course, as the strong turn towards noir in the post-war years might suggest. In fact, Capra never really made another major film, certainly none that are remembered or watched today. His heyday was the 1930s, when he had a string of hits that are still popular: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take it With You (1938)—a personal favorite—and whatis his most critically acclaimed film, and after Wonderful Life the one most frequently watched today, It Happened One Night (1934), with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

Directors working with the same actors on a number of films were fairly common in the heyday of Hollywood, but Capra’s working relationship with his staple actors was particularly rewarding. Lionel Barrymore in You Can’t Take it With You and Wonderful Life—a bit curmudgeon-y in both, but charming in the former and cruel in the latter.  Jean Arthur—astonishingly charming, “the quintessential comedic leading lady”—in You Can’t Take it With You and Mr. Deeds.  And James Stewart. James Stewart in two of his most remembered performances, in Mr. Smith and Wonderful Life, as well as in You Can’t Take it With You, in which he’s great.  Stewart has been better, and been in much better movies—including another holiday movie, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), directed by Ernst Lubitsch.  But Stewart’s roles and performances in the Capra movies tend to really stay with people.

As I said, I haven’t been able to find when and where It’s a Wonderful Life is showing on TV this season, but you can watch the whole movie online on YouTube:

For more…

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Songs of the Season: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

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Some classical music with no obvious, overt connection to the holiday has nonetheless become associated with Christmas over the years—at least in the United States. Bach has a Christmas Oratorio, but his choral movement known as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” also seems to have become something of a Christmas tune (as well as a popular piece for weddings).

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is the English title of the 10th movement of the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147 composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. A transcription by the English pianist Myra Hess (1890–1965) was published in 1926 for piano solo and in 1934 for piano duet.[1] The British organist Peter Hurford made his organ transcription for the chorale movement as well. Today, it is often performed at wedding ceremonies slowly and reverently, in defiance of the effect suggested by Bach in his original scoring,[2] for voices with trumpet, oboes, strings, and continuo. Written during his first year in Leipzig, Germany, this chorale movement is one of Bach’s most enduring works. (via Wikipedia.)

It is, or at least can be, stately, beautiful, serious but also full of joy. You can see why people like it for occasions such as weddings and Christmas. The Windham Hill version is pretty much my favorite version as a “holiday” song:

David Qualey, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” – from A Winter’s Solstice

The numerous other versions available can vary greatly in appeal:

Sarah Brightman also included a version on her album, A Winter Symphony.

For more…

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Scenes of the Season: Linus Explains It All

Some of us are Christians, some of us aren’t. I know Christmas is supposed to be about the birth of Jesus Christ, but I relate to it much more as a Winter Solstice celebration. Here’s Linus with his take on the meaning of Christmas:

Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or the Winter Solstice or nothing at all, I wish you all the best during this time of year – light and life, peace and goodwill, joy and happiness.

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Scenes of the Season: All I Want for Christmas

is love. And of course I am not alone in that, which is why this movie resonated with so many people, found an appreciative audience.

A great cast, including Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Bill Nighy and Laura Linney. Very solid directing by Richard Curtis, writer of a number of excellent British productions of recent years, including the TV shows “Blackadder” and “The Vicar of Dibley” and the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral – and most recently the fun comedy Pirate Radio (aka The Boat That Rocked). And lots of happy endings.

Roger Ebert called it “a belly flop” and you can sort of see his point. There are too many love stories, and the quality of them is uneven, and some of the situations do seem contrived or far too obvious. But when you read what Ebert has to say about the movie, you get the idea that he enjoyed it far more than that “belly flop” would suggest. And with performances like those of Hugh Grant, never more winning than he is here, and Bill Nighy who, as usual, steals the show, there is plenty to enjoy – even if, in the end, there is maybe too much over all. But in any case, I am truly a sucker for holiday fare and I genuinely enjoyed this movie.

For more…

 

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Songs of the Season: In the Bleak Midwinter

Winter Solstice – the longest night, hinge of the year…

Considered one of the finest carols by choirmasters and choral experts, this song is not so well-known by the general public, at least here in United States – but it’s one of my favorites, and the version from Windham Hill’s “Winter’s Solstice” series is particularly fine, one of the absolute gems on those collections …

Pierce Pettis, “In the Bleak Midwinter” – from A Winter’s Solstice III

While I like that very much and it is where I first recall hearing “In the Bleak Midwinter,” there are a huge number of other versions out there. Some of the artists who’ve covered this carol in versions that are available now include: James Taylor, Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin, Loreena McKennitt, King’s College Choir, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, The Moody Blues, John Fahey, Julie Andrews… and the list goes on. Read the rest of this entry »

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Songs of the Season: All I Want for Christmas is You

Olivia Olson, “All I Want for Christmas is You” – from Love Actually (2003)

A modern classic?

Perhaps – I don’t know. It doesn’t feel that Christmasy to me. It takes more than references to the holiday and some jingling bells to make a real Christmas song. For me there are two main kinds of Christmas songs: those that capture the magic and mystery of the solstice, of the darkness and the lights, of the cold and the firelight and hearth- and heart- warming of foods, fire, family and friends; and those that are associated with the holiday through long-standing traditions.

The latter include all those songs we heard as children, including the ones from holiday movies and TV specials – songs like “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and the ones in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The former can be found in some of the better of the Windham Hill collections, among other places.

Since “All I Want for Christmas is You” featured prominently in that feel-good holiday film Love Actually (and in its promotional campaign), perhaps it has or will have that same quality for people in their teens and twenties. Will they feel about it in twenty years the same way my friends and I feel about “Linus and Lucy”? Perhaps… I kind of hope not – it just seems too pop and too commercial. And you could never sing it while caroling… But like “Winter Wonderland” and some of the other peppier, poppier holiday songs, it’s fine to get you in the mood for shopping, skating, wassailing.

The song was written and originally recorded by Mariah Carey and released by her as a single in 1994.

For more…

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Scenes of the Season: Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing A Little Drummer Boy

David Bowie joins Bing Crosby on his 1977 Christmas special – and the pair sing one of the more popular versions of “Little Drummer Boy” in recent years.

Watch it: YouTube – Little Drummer Boy – David Bowie & Bing Crosby (HQ Audio)

Or listen to it: David Bowie and Bing Crosby, “Little Drummer Boy”, available on Bing Crosby – Christmas Classics

For more…

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Songs of the Season: A Holly Jolly Christmas

Burl Ives provides the voice of the narrator, Sam the Snowman, on the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special, and also sings both the title song and another tune written by Johnny Marks just for the show, “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” which has became a Christmas standard in its own right:

And here’s another version by Ives: “A Holly Jolly Christmas”

Read the rest of this entry »

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Songs of the Season: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

This must be just about the most popular Christmas song in the United States – certainly the one that pretty much everyone knows all the words to. And pretty much everyone has done a version of it:

Gene Autry, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” (Gene Autry was the “Singing Cowboy”)

Jack Johnson, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”

Chris Isaak, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”

The Temptations, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” – from A Motown Christmas

Ella Fitzgerald, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”

Ray Charles, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”

Dean Martin, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”

More recently, Destiny’s Child did a funked up version of this Christmas classic, with an accompanying video that integrates them into the 1964 TV special:

But here’s the thing – this song epitomizes the commercialization of Christmas:

Robert L. May created Rudolph in 1939 as an assignment for Montgomery Ward. The retailer had been buying and giving away coloring books for Christmas every year and it was decided that creating their own book would save money. In its first year of publication, 2.4 million copies of Rudolph’s story were distributed by Montgomery Ward. The story is written as a poem in the meter of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”. (via Wikipedia.)

Created by a department store/catalog company as a way to make more money during Christmas, and visually best known through a TV special. It’s a manufactured tradition – made to order, literally. And yet it does seem to have become part of our Christmas thing, at least here in the United States. And the song has become one of those pieces of general knowledge – every kid seems to know it, even if they’ve never seen that special. Still, I love it less for knowing its department store origins.

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Songs of the Season: Angels We Have Heard On High

Everyone knows this tune – it’s another Christmas standard – but I have to confess I didn’t know the title of the song, and the only words I really knew were those most obvious ones from the chorus – that whole “Gloria / In Excelsis Deo” bit.

The song reportedly evolved out of a Christmas custom in southern France, where shepherds tending their flocks on Christmas would call out across the hills “Gloria in excelsis Deo, Gloria in excelsis Deo!” in celebration of Jesus’ birth.

The words of the song are based on a traditional French carol known as Les Anges dans nos campagnes (literally, “Angels in our countryside”) composed by an unknown author in Languedoc, France. That song has received many adjustments or alignments including its most common English version that was translated in 1862 by James Chadwick, the Roman Catholic bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, north east England. The carol quickly became popular in the West Country, where it was described as ‘Cornish’ by R.R. Chope, and featured in Pickard-Cambridge’s Collection of Dorset Carols.

There is also a Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) translation of the carol which is known as Ainglean chuala sinn gu h-ard (literally, “Angels We Have Heard on High”). This was translated into Gaelic by Iain MacMilan from James Chadwick’s English translation. (via Wikipedia.)

It’s nice. I’ve got a kind of rocking version by The Brian Seltzer Orchestra that I sort of appreciate for novelty value, and also a version from some Celtic Christmas album, but the version I’m listening to right now, which I genuinely like is by Robert Goulet. Go figure.

Robert Goulet and Carol Lawrence, “Angels We Have Heard On High” – from Treasury of Christmas Music

Windham Hill Artists, “Angels We Have Heard On High” – from A Winter’s Solstice V

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Scenes of the Season: A Scrubs Christmas

Insanely brilliant: A Charlie Brown Christmas – with voices done by the cast of the sitcom “Scrubs.”

For more…

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Songs of the Season: Jingle Bells

Certainly one of the most widely known and popular (in the United States) of all Christmas songs. Sing along:

(This YouTube video – which bills itself as the “Original Jingle Bells Animation Clip” – includes clips from a variety of sources, including animated cartoons, Christmas movies and TV shows, with karaoke-style sing along lyrics overlaid. It’s quite well done, I think.)

I’ve got versions of “Jingle Bells” from a whole bunch of artists, though predictably more from the jazz and pop side of things than classical, folk or Celtic musicians. Even David Hasselhoff of “Bay Watch” recorded it (ugh). The jazz versions can be quite interesting – particularly the ones by Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Fats Waller. And more traditional/predictable versions, like those by Nat King Cole (and by his daughter Natalie) and Bing Crosby.

It’s odd how many artists have recorded versions. It’s a fun song, but for kids – it’s not really beautiful, but it is upbeat and easy to sing. Its real merit is as something we can sing, rather than as something to listen to on holiday evenings. In any case, we will hear it far too often, or at least the basic tune, in store muzak and commercials long before the holidays are over.

Nonetheless, here are a few versions I find reasonably listenable or interesting in other ways:

Ella Fitzgerald, “Jingle Bells” – from Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas

Diana Krall, “Jingle Bells” – from Christmas Songs

The Andrews Sisters with Bing Crosby, “Jingle Bells” – from White Christmas

Earl Scruggs, “Jingle Bells” – from A Very Special Acoustic Christmas

Read the rest of this entry »

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zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, film buff and occasional reviewer, and former private detective. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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