citizen kate: day five

yes, virginia, there is a day five and it begins with george seaton's miracle on 34th street (1947).

a kindly old gentleman by the name of kris kringle is tapped as a last minute replacement for a tanked-up santa in macy's thanksgiving day parade. he is such a natural fit that he is hired to be the store santa for the holidays. the reason he does such a bang up job? the old nutter actually thinks he's santa claus. he's thoroughly convincing as well, what with his genuine care for every child he meets and outlandish ideas like spreading happiness at the expense of corporate profit. of course, the same thing happens to him that happens to most revolutionaries that interfere with the status quo - the man drops the hammer on him. they throw santa in bellevue and he has to go to court to prove his sanity. an idealistic young lawyer decides to go one better and not only prove he is sane but that he actually is saint nick. with the help of the prosecuting attorney's son and the u.s. postal service, santa wins the day and with the imprimatur of the new york supreme court he is freed just in time to go on his appointed christmas eve rounds. edmund gwenn is the real deal here. he is excellent as kringle, and not too cloyingly sweet. yes, he loves all the children of the world and is eager to spread joy everywhere he goes but he's not above rapping you on the sconce if you get out of line and attempt to exploit or harm a kid. as with most christmas fare, it often veers toward overwhelming sentimentality but in this case it is saved by two things. first, it occasionally injects a tiny note of cynicism into the proceedings to keep its footing. nothing overt, mind you. just enough to remind us that we live in a world that can really use a guy like santa claus. second, and most important, sincerity. you can be as schlocky as you want and i will grant you a wide berth if i am convinced you truly mean it. when christmas material fails it is almost always because it lacks this vital quality. watch this side-by-side with the abc family movies i endured earlier this week and you will see exactly what i mean. i am not so naive as to not understand how and why these movies get made but at least they used to make them with a fair amount of personality and a whole lot of heart. yes, it was a more innocent time but that doesn't mean the new formula has to be so empty and crass. santa used to be a pretty cool guy. if they needed him that much then imagine how much we could use him now.

we keep the forties yuletide log burning with leo mccarey's the bells of st. mary's (1945).

bing crosby reprises his role as father o'malley from going my way (1944) and this time around he bumps heads with the hottest nun in the world, ingrid bergman, as they figure out the best way to run, and then save, their school. in the end, it comes down to whether or not they receive help from the businessman next door in the form of a donated building. whether guided by the hand of god or father bing's machinations, the old man decides to lend a helping hand and the day is saved, but not before sister ingrid is scheduled to be transferred because she has contracted tuberculosis. this one, unfortunately, didn't quite work for me. i love leo mccarey. he made duck soup (1933), for pete's sake, along with many other of my favorite films, but his skills just don't translate here. with him and ingrid bergman on board i was predisposed to like it, but there were too many negatives for me to truly enjoy it. first and foremost - bing crosby. i have never liked the guy and his rakish, sleepy-eyed, bullshit irish charm makes for one smarmy, creepy priest. the material itself is bland, for the most part, and only really rises above comic fluff/weepy melodrama when the kids are directly involved. it's a pretty uninspired production, overall. maybe it suffered this time from immediately following one of its superior contemporaries. maybe it's just because i like this version of the bells of st. mary's better:

who can say?

closing the show today we have suzie templeton's beautiful piece of animation, peter and the wolf (2006).

this was a real highlight this week. a joint british/polish collaboration, it won the academy award for best animated short film that year and it is easy to see why. it is a painstakingly crafted re-telling of sergei prokofiev's classic musical children's tale in which a young boy, peter, lives with his grandfather on the edge of a clearing in the forest. peter's companions in this rendition are an awkward and shabby, but completely endearing, duck, a bird with a broken wing that peter helps to fly by tying a balloon to it and his grandfather's anti-social cat. they cavort in the woods, rambling about, skating on the frozen pond until peter's grandfather awakes from his nap, corrals them all and scolds peter for being so cavalier while dangerous wolves roam the forest. on cue, the wolf shows up, swallows the duck whole and terrorizes the others while peter best figures out how to trap him. after a mighty struggle, peter captures the wolf and they take him into town to sell him to the zoo. while in the square, though, peter notices the wolf being taunted by bullies much the same way he was early on in the film and he can't abide that. he decides to release the wolf, opening the cage and coming face to face with him. they warily regard each other with a mutual respect and understanding for just a moment and then the wolf runs off, free to roam the forest once again. what is really astounding about the production is that all this is communicated without the benefit of speech. templeton has jettisoned all dialogue and narration for this version and all of those complicated notions are communicated exclusively by prokofiev's iconic score and the incredibly detailed and evocative expressions of the animated figures. the attention to detail cannot be overemphasized. every frame is filled with things to look at, as the sets almost have as much to offer the story as the characters themselves. i can't imagine how much time and effort went into this production. the characters' movements and facial expressions are elegant when they need to be and frantic when the story calls for it. the tale itself packs so much tension, adventure and fun into its short running time that it's almost hard to believe. you definitely don't want it to be over. i would really love to see this one in the theater with an accompanying orchestra. it would bring down the house, i'll bet. as it is, just watching it this way was great, far and away my favorite thing i have seen this week. it was a gift.

or maybe it was more like a last meal for a condemned man.

don't i at least have the option of a blindfold?

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