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BLACK AND WHITE AND XMAS ALL OVER

       

Donna Reed and James Stewart, center, dance above a high school swimming pool in this iconic scene from 'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946). 

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Two things struck me about this 11-year-old column, aside from its Christmas theme: it concludes with something that speaks to the current Black Lives Matter climate (and I now wish I’d written more firmly here about not recommending the film in question) and it refers to what was once the ubiquitous morning activity of reading the local newspaper — emphasis on ‘paper’ — which will soon be a thing of the past when Salt Lake’s dailies go exclusively online in January (except for a weekly weekend publication). This column was published on Dec. 25, 2009. (Obviously it had to be written before Christmas Day but we had our annual very-large family party and gift exchange a couple of weeks before the holiday arrived.)

 

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

 

Now you can budget for all those post-Christmas sales advertised in today’s paper — and maybe you’ll even find something to give Aunt Matilda for next Christmas.

 

(Wow, I used the word “Christmas” three times in one paragraph. That’s sure to irritate someone.)

 

Me? I made out like a bandit, as they say. A box set of classic film noirs from the 1940s, the first season of “Zane Grey Theatre,” circa 1956. My kids must have swiped my list from Santa.

 

Some of the grandkids took note when they looked up from their latest electronic gadgetry and asked about them. (Verbalized questions; no texting involved).

 

Gee, grandpa, 70-year-old black-and-white movies? Half-hour black-and-white westerns? Really?

 

Hey, one man’s shades of gray is another man’s Technicolor.

 

Besides, lots of almost-black-and-white movies are made today; they just don’t call them black and white. It’s sort of a dirty black and white. You know, that washed-out semi-sepia tone that has become so popular? Think “Terminator Salvation.” Ugh.

 

I love black and white — real black and white — especially when it’s used artfully. And many of those old movies definitely had artful cinematography.

 

Many films actually thrive on their black-and-white trappings, film noirs for example. Take a look at “Out of the Past” or “The Maltese Falcon” or any number of classics that use shadow and light in a way that is truly enhanced by black and white. Those films would be much less effective in color.

 

       

 

      Janet Leigh, Robert Mitchum, 'Holiday Affair' (1949)

 

My wife and I watched “White Christmas” and “A Christmas Story” recently, which we hadn’t watched all the way through in several years. Nice color movies.

 

But I have to admit that there is a richness to the black-and-white oldies we watched this Christmas that only added to the atmosphere. This was especially true of “It’s a Wonderful Life” — another film we hadn’t watched from beginning to end for several years — and we gained a new appreciation for what makes a classic film hold up over the decades. (Artistic photography helps.)

 

Another favorite of ours is “Holiday Affair,” a delightful light romantic comedy with Janet Leigh as a war widow courted by two very different men (Robert Mitchum, Wendell Corey).

 

And this year we watched a film that made its DVD debut, and which is available only through Turner Classic Movies, “Remember the Night,” another light romantic comedy — one we had never seen.

 

“Remember the Night” is a contrived but cute offbeat yarn about successful New York prosecutor John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) who takes pity on shoplifter Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) and tries to give her a real Christmas, falling in love along the way. (This was several years before MacMurray and Stanwyck would costar in the great film noir thriller “Double Indemnity,” and they have genuine chemistry here.)

 

Written by the great filmmaker Preston Sturges (his last screenplay before he began directing his own work), “Remember the Night” also boasts an ending that is a bittersweet surprise for a 1940 rom-com. And as is typical of Sturges, the film is loaded with wonderfully quirky characters — although one of them, early in the film, proved to be a major stumbling block for us.

 

        

 

Fred Toones (aka 'Snowflake'), left, Fred MacMurray, 'Remember the Night' (1940)

 

In a few opening scenes, we see Sargent with his valet Rufus, played by black actor Fred Toones, who is listed as “Snowflake” — the racist nickname he used as billing. His subservient character is played in the slow, sing-song, stumbling, muttering manner of Stepin Fetchit, Willie Best and other black actors of the period — an unfortunate stereotype that was mandated by the studios.

 

Rufus waits on Sargent, prepares food, folds clothes, stuffs his suitcase, helps him put on his jacket — and Sargent returns the favor by disparaging him, calling him “dumbbell” and mocking his voice (“Who all wan’s to speak to massa Sargent?”). Later Sargent says, “He’s not very bright but he can cook.”

 

Sadly, such characters provided comic relief in many comedies, dramas and Westerns in the 1930s and ’40s. Toones himself appeared in some 200 movies during those two decades.

 

Yet it was still a shock to come across these scenes in a new-to-DVD Christmas movie.

 

The rest of the 94-minute “Remember the Night” is thoughtful and quite enjoyable. Unfortunately, its first 15 to 20 minutes make it very difficult to recommend.