Buried Treasure Holiday Treats for You
Ho, ho, ho. I am here to provide a holiday service to you. If you have grown tired of the same holiday entertainments, not matter how great (Yes, “It’s A Wonderful Life”, I’m talking to you), I come to you bearing two gifts you may never have even heard about, or at the very least, ever seen.
One is a silly guilty pleasure, one is an underrated classic. The former is a delightfully goofy and well-turned version of a true Christmas classic, the latter falls into the category of a great movie that just happens to be set at Christmas time. For your seasonal pleasure, I present “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” and “The Shop Around the Corner”
From the time that I was about ten years old, to this day, most Christmas seasons have included at least one viewing of the “made for television” 1962 musical cartoon, “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol”. It was the first animated holiday program ever produced specifically for TV, predating “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” by two years.
The wildly nearsighted Magoo was a popular television staple at the time, and the reboot of the classic holiday story was presented in the form of Magoo performing “A Christmas Carol” on Broadway. The show begins in classic Magoo style as he blunders his way to the theater for the performance. It includes the first of the six perfect songs penned by Broadway stalwarts Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. “It’s Great to be Back on Broadway” has me laughingly foghorning the word “Broooaaadwayyy”!!!! for days. It is then presented in four acts (the commercials went in between) in a sprightly 53 minutes, which makes it nice for restless children, or impatient adults.
An interesting, simplistic, and stylized animation style that was popular at the time is used, and it works. You know the story. The next act is Christmas Present, with Magoo’s Scrooge forced by The Ghost to view his employee Bob Cratchit and his family’s struggles, which are due to the miserly Scrooge. They are an upbeat bunch despite their woes, reflected in their rendition of “The Lord’s Bright Blessings”
The visit by The Ghost of Christmas Past sends you back to Scrooge’s childhood, of course, and it you aren’t at least misting up when young Scrooge sings “Alone in the World” then your heart must be as hard as old Scrooge’s.
The nocturnal visits of his deceased partner Jacob Marley, and then The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and what he shows Scrooge, are quite creepy even now, and for young Danny Clinkscale, they were about as scary as the flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz”. This acts signature song “We’re Despicable (Plunderer’s March)” is eerie and funny at the same time as Scrooge sees his belongings sold to the local rag and bone man.
The redemption of Scrooge at the end of even the limpest version of a “A Christmas Carol” is heartwarming, and this is as good as any of the best. I guess my best recommendation for the show is that my daughters, through their teen years and now as twenty somethings usually press me to watch the show again. I will offer one warning, “Razzleberry Dressing”, will not be your favorite part of this offbeat classic.
As far away from a guilty pleasure as you can get is “The Shop Around the Corner”. The 1940 film starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch, has been ranked in the top five of all Christmas films in various lists, numerous top 100’s overall, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 1999.
The delightful romantic comedy is set at Christmas time in a Budapest, Hungary leather goods store (yes, everyone speaks English) run by Hugo Matuschek, played by the wonderful Frank Morgan, just removed from playing The Wizard of Oz. More on his fine performance later. The store is managed by Alfred Kralik (Stewart), who at the outset has the complete respect and trust of Matuschek, who treats him more like a son than an employee. Matuschek seeks Kralik’s advice on everything and almost always takes it, even if he doesn’t want it known.
Enter Klara Novak (the ever delightful Sullavan), who comes to the store as a customer, but is really seeking a job in the tough times of the late thirties. She gets it by convincing Matuschek that a cigarette box that Kralik says is a bad idea, would actually be a good one as a candy box. She seals the job by selling the box immediately.
Of course, Kralik and Novak can’t stand each other. Novak is headstrong, and seemingly completely disinterested in the efficient Kralik, since she has her dream man in the form of a pen pal she has never met, but who writes brilliant love letters filled with literary references. Kralik also has a similar pen pal relationship, so you know where this is going. But it goes there in a brilliant roller coaster of subplots and interesting characters.
The other employees at the shop are all interesting and well played. There is the womanizing Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraudt) whose lifestyle far exceeds what it should on his shop salary, the ambitious delivery boy Pepi (William Tracy), and the timid, but dedicated employee and family man Pirovich (Felix Bressart). Bressart is one my all-time favorite character actors, humble and funny. He was also a Lubistch favorite, and had just had great success as one of the Russian emissaries following Garbo about in the brilliant “Ninotchka”.
Amidst Kralik and Novak’s sparring, Kralik’s relationship with Mr. Matuschek is chilling, for reasons that Kralik can’t understand. Matuschek now snaps at Kralik when he used to seek his counsel, and the two are more and more at odds for seemingly no reason. He eventually fires Kralik, a decision he later desperately regrets, when he learns the truth about his suspicions of his wife having an affair, the genesis of his growing disdain for Kralik.
The time comes when the two pen pals have to meet, and the dynamics of that are handled in such a way that the obvious conclusion seems far less obvious as it is being played out. I desperately tried to leave out some spoilers while trying to give you a sense of what occurs. This movie was reworked and remade as “You’ve Got Mail”, so perhaps I could have just done it that way.
Obviously, since six years later Stewart would make another holiday classic, it’s easy to compare “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Shop Around the Corner”. There is no need to have a director’s battle of (Frank)“Capra-corn” VS “The Lubitsch Touch”. Both are classic films that are very different. If a gun were pointed at me, I would pick “Shop”, but I hope that I avoid that situation.
Stewart obviously is the linchpin of both films, but he has very different tasks in each. He always plays Jimmy Stewart well, but he has more nuance than he is ever give credit for, and it shows in his differing work in each of these two films, albeit with his requisite likability and charm. In this film the match with the charming, spunky, and lovely Sullavan is perfect. She was a tortured soul in real life, making her crystalline beauty and charm on screen that more amazing.
But among all the fine performances, the one that might be the most important is Morgan’s. Portraying Matuschek as a lovely, likable and slightly addled man, he then must, without revealing too much, slowly develop surprising disdain for the man he mentors, and wants to be his successor. It’s a great turn by a very underrated actor.
This movie is a start to finish delight without in my mind a single flat note. The flat notes are only delivered in these two holiday treats by the tone deaf Magoo/Scrooge. And those are a perfect part of the package, a holiday package from me to you.