Ginger Rogers

Sentimental Journey: Wartime Nostalgia & Three Christmas Classics

Judy Garland Meet Me in St. Louis

If there’s anything Christmas movies are known for, it’s for having heartwarming, sentimental themes. Of course, there are some notable exceptions out there, but those themes can be found at the core of many of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time. Every holiday season, millions of people get hit with a wave of nostalgia that makes them crave the wholesome, heartfelt entertainment that Christmas movies typically have to offer. While that’s a trend that never truly goes away, it can become particularly apparent when times are difficult, such as during times of war.

During the 1940s, World War II had a profound impact on the life of every American, whether they were serving in the war or back on the homefront. As the holidays approached, people were understandably longing for past Christmases that were spent together with family and friends. Even the most lighthearted movies can be a reflection of the era in which they were produced and 1940s Christmas movies are no exception. In fact, it was a driving force that helped make some of our most cherished holiday movies and songs so popular.

Bing Crosby Singing White Christmas in Holiday Inn 1942

Holiday Inn (1942)

In 1940, Paramount Studios commissioned Irving Berlin to write a series of holiday-themed songs to use in a movie about an inn that only opened on holidays. While Holiday Inn was a box office success on its release, becoming one of the most successful movies of 1942, one of those Irving Berlin songs would go on to eclipse the movie’s success.

Nearly 80 years after its initial release, Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” remains the best-selling record of all time and is widely considered one of the most significant American songs ever recorded, but Crosby initially didn’t think the song was anything exceptional. In fact, it was expected that the song “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” from Holiday Inn‘s Valentine’s Day number would be the biggest hit from the movie’s soundtrack. But while the movie was being filmed, the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred and moviegoers were in a different place by the time the movie was released. “White Christmas” struck a nerve with people who wanted to go back to simpler, safer times.

Considering the resonance it had with people during World War II, its prominent use in White Christmas twelve years later was much more than just an excuse to get Bing Crosby to reprise his signature song and sell more copies of it. It was a natural choice for a movie about two World War II veterans who reunite with their commanding officer.

Meet Me in St. Louis Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Judy Garland Margaret O'Brien

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

During the golden age of Hollywood, each of the major studios had their thing they were known for. Universal had their horror movies, Warner Brothers had their gritty gangster movies, and MGM had musicals. Louis B. Mayer was very big on producing wholesome entertainment the whole family could enjoy and Meet Me in St. Louis is a prime example of that.

Meet Me in St. Louis follows the lives of the Smith family over the course of a year as they face an upcoming move from St. Louis to New York at the turn of the 20th century. Given the span of time the movie covers, it’s not strictly a Christmas movie, but the scene in which Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Margaret O’Brien is enough to make it a holiday classic.

With audiences longing to be reminded more innocent times, Meet Me in St. Louis was exactly what many moviegoers were looking for at the time, but “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” took that yearning to the next level. The version performed in the movie, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, blends a message of hope with a twinge of sadness. The original version of the song was decidedly less optimistic and included lines like, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,” until director Vincente Minnelli and stars Judy Garland and Tom Drake complained that the song was far too depressing for the scene. While the song still remains immensely popular over 70 years later, the lyrics were particularly poignant for World War II-era audiences who had been separated from their loved ones.

I'll Be Seeing You 1944 Ginger Rogers Joseph Cotten

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)

Unlike “White Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” isn’t a song specifically about Christmas, nor was it specifically written for a movie. “I’ll Be Seeing You” was originally written by Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain for the play Right This Way, which closed after just fifteen performances in 1938. The play may not have been notable, but “I’ll Be Seeing You” most decidedly was. The song’s melancholy, sentimental tone helped give it a whole new life a few years later after the United States entered World War II. As the war wore on, renditions recorded by Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Jo Stafford, and Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey turned the song into an anthem for those who were missing their loved ones during the war.

Although “I’ll Be Seeing You” makes no mention of Christmas, it serves as a very fitting theme song for the 1944 movie by the same name, which does revolve around Christmas. In I’ll Be Seeing You, Ginger Rogers plays Mary Marshall, a prisoner who has been given leave to spend the holidays with her family. On the train, she meets Sergeant Zachary Morgan, played by Joseph Cotten, who is on leave while he tries to cope with PTSD. During the holiday, the two develop a romance as they try to keep their respective secrets hidden from each other. Unlike Meet Me in St. Louis and Holiday InnI’ll Be Seeing You directly involves life during World War II so using a popular song of the era as the main theme not only feels natural, it perfectly captures the bittersweet, wistful tone of the movie.

Black Widow (1954)

Black Widow 1954

After saying goodbye to his actress wife Iris (Gene Tierney) at the airport, Broadway producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin) decides to make an appearance at a party being thrown by their neighbor, Lottie (Ginger Rogers), a fellow actress. Peter really doesn’t want to go, but he finds it hard to make excuses not to when he lives in the same building as the host. At the party, he meets 20-something-year-old Nancy “Nanny” Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner).

Like lots of young people, Nanny has recently come to New York City full of ambition and looking to start a successful career as a writer. Peter is very happily married and has no interest in having an affair, but he likes to help people who are just getting started, so he offers to take her out to dinner, making his platonic intentions very clear. After that night, he continues his friendship with Nanny and when she says her apartment isn’t very conducive to writing, he agrees to let her work from his luxurious apartment while he’s at work during the day.

When Iris returns from her trip, she and Peter arrive at their apartment and discover that Nanny has committed suicide. But once the police get involved, it becomes clear there was foul play involved. Iris was well aware of Peter’s friendship with Nanny and never felt threatened by it…until the investigation gets underway. Once the police investigation begins, though, some evidence comes forward that makes Peter look like the prime suspect. Determined to prove his innocence, Peter has to do some investigating to clear his name.

Black Widow isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a great movie, either. The story is nothing innovative or groundbreaking, but it’s entertaining enough to watch at least once. There are certainly far worse ways you could spend 95 minutes. But I have a slight soft spot for it since there’s something about film noir movies that were filmed in Technicolor that I really like (I don’t know why really, just one of my many random fixations.) Also, because it has a poster that is far more scandalous than the movie actually is. (Seriously, why does the woman on this poster have long hair? Nanny has super short hair, nor is she nearly that vampy.)

Black Widow has a lot of big stars, but none of them are at their best in it. Gene Tierney in particular is extremely under utilized in it, so if you’re watching it for her, you may be disappointed. George Raft was pretty underwhelming in his role as a detective working the case. And although I liked some of Lottie’s sassier quips, it’s not one of Ginger’s finest roles, but it’s not a terrible one, either, especially considering where she was at that point in her career.  This was one of the last feature films she made before mostly moving into television and stage roles, so while Black Widow is no Kitty Foyle, it doesn’t even come close to Trog or Sextette territory, either. The best performance of the movie comes from Peggy Ann Garner, who unfortunately, doesn’t get top billing even though she deserved it more than most of the other actors in this movie.

Carefree 1938

Carefree (1938)

Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy) has been engaged to singer Amanda Cooper (Ginger Rogers) multiple times, but she continually breaks off their engagement. After finding himself jilted for the third time, Stephen asks his friend Tony (Fred Astaire), a psychiatrist, to analyze Amanda and find out what’s causing her fear of commitment. Before meeting her, Tony thinks Amanda is a “mindless female,” and says so into his dictaphone, a recording that Amanda ends up hearing while waiting in his office. Furious, Amanda gets out of the appointment and snubs Tony when she meets him again later.

Eventually, Amanda admits why she’s angry with Tony and Tony apologizes before he starts questioning Amanda about her fear of commitment. Amanda can’t offer any explanation for it, so Tony orders her to have a meal of ridiculous food combinations to bring on dreams that could offer some insight. The plan works, but Amanda awakens the next morning realizing she’s in love with Tony, not Stephen.

When Tony asks Amanda about her dream, she doesn’t want to admit the truth, so she makes up a wild dream that makes Tony want to study her further. He orders her to be given a truth serum, not realizing she’s due to perform on the radio very shortly. Despite the fact that her broadcast is a complete disaster, Amanda still loves Tony, but just as she’s about to admit her feelings to him, Stephen announces that he and Amanda are engaged again. Although Tony loves her back, he tries to hypnotize Amanda into thinking she loves Stephen, a plan that also totally backfires.

Carefree is an Astaire-Rogers movie that I don’t think gets nearly enough credit. Sure, there aren’t as many songs as some of their other movies and the musical numbers aren’t as dazzling as “Cheek to Cheek” or “Never Gonna Dance,” but there still are some really great dances in it. I love the hypnotic dance they do to “Change Partners” and I like the slight surrealness of “I Used to be Colorblind.” I actually didn’t mind that it wasn’t as heavy on the songs as some of their other movies because there was less to distract attention from how great Astaire, Rogers, and Bellamy all were in it, just in different ways. For example, Ginger Rogers in particular was hilarious in it, but I think that’s a fact that might have been overshadowed if there had been more dance scenes. So even if Carefree isn’t the best of the Astaire-Rogers pairings, it’s nice to see them in a movie that lets them emphasize some of their other talents.

Fifth Avenue Girl

Fifth Avenue Girl (1939)

On the surface, Alfred Borden (Walter Connolly) might seem like he has it all. He runs his own business, he’s rich, and he lives in a beautiful home on 5th Avenue. In reality, his business is going through some difficulties, his wife Martha (Verree Teasdale) isn’t faithful, his son Tim (Tim Holt) is too busy partying to be of any help at the office, and Katherine (Kathryn Adams) is too wrapped up in her own world to pay attention to her father. Alfred’s family doesn’t even remember his birthday.

Rather than spend his birthday at home with his servants, he heads over to the park, where he meets Mary Grey (Ginger Rogers), who happens to need a job. He invites her to join him for dinner at a swanky restaurant and the two have a swell time drinking and dancing all night. Martha and her boyfriend are at the same restaurant that night and when she sees Alfred cavorting with Mary, he suddenly becomes a lot more interesting to her.

The next day, Alfred realizes that being seen with Mary got him more attention from his family than he’s gotten in a long time. He hires Mary to pretend to be his girlfriend and the two of them pretend to go out every night. Alfred’s family is dismayed by his behavior and tries to get Mary out of the picture. Although Tim loathes Mary at first, it isn’t long before he starts to fall in love with her while Martha is falling in love with her husband all over again.

5th Avenue Girl may not be a musical, but it is a good representation of a lot of other reasons why I love Ginger Rogers. She was so good at playing these smart, funny, likable characters and that’s exactly what she does here; although a bit more deadpan than usual. She has great co-stars in Walter Connolly and Verree Teasdale, but I wasn’t too wild about Tim Holt as Ginger’s love interest. The writing isn’t perfect, but it’s still strong enough of a movie to be well worth watching. I wasn’t wild about enough to call it an underrated gem, but it’s certainly not a mediocre movie, either; it’s somewhere between those two levels.

What’s on TCM: July 2014

Maureen O'HaraHappy July, everyone!  With summer now in full swing, TCM has plenty of great movies to watch on hot summer nights.  Maureen O’Hara is July’s Star of the Month and will be featured every Tuesday night this month.  TCM will also be commemorating the hundredth anniversary of World War I every Friday by showing some of the best WWI movies, including The Big ParadeSergeant YorkGrand Illusion, and All Quiet on the Western Front, just to name a few.

The night I am most looking forward to this month is July 10th.  TCM will be featuring six classic documentaries such as Salesman, Harlan County USA, and Sans Soleil. I really like documentaries and that night’s movies is a nice mix of things I’m looking forward to re-watching and ones I’ve been wanting to see.

Now, on to the rest of the schedule…

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42nd Street (1933)

42nd Street 1933When word gets out that producers Jones and Barry are putting on a new show, it’s the talk of the theater world.  Since the nation is in the midst of the Great Depression, a lot of people are depending on this show; everyone from electricians and set builders to chorus girls and the show’s director need it to be a hit.  Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) agrees to direct the show despite his doctor’s advice.  Julian has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and was advised to find a less stressful profession.  But Julian can’t afford to retire, so he needs it to be a hit so he can afford to get out of the business.

One person who is living comfortably, despite the Depression, is Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels).  She’s the girlfriend of Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), the show’s financial backer, which means she has no problem securing a position as the show’s leading lady. Other ladies clamor for the chance to be in the chorus, including Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), who is new to the theater world.  But Peggy has no problem fitting in and quickly makes friends with fellow chorines Annie (Ginger Rogers) and Lorraine (Una Merkel) and catches the eye of Billy Lawler (Dick Powell).

After rehearsals get underway, the producers find out that Dorothy has been seeing her former vaudeville partner Pat Denning (George Brent) on the side.  Not wanting to endanger the show, they try to put a stop to it.  But just before the show is set to open, Abner finds out about Dorothy’s two-timing, they get into a fight, and he wants her out of the show.  The producers protest, but when Dorothy injures her ankle, they have no choice but to re-cast the lead.  Abner wants Annie to take the lead, but she knows she isn’t up to the task.  However, she believes Peggy is.

When 42nd Street was released in 1933, the concept of the backstage musical had already been done before in movies like The Broadway Melody.  But when 42nd Street came along, it not only became the ultimate backstage musical, it revolutionized the entire genre of musicals.  Everyone wanted to mimic Busby Berkley’s style of choreography.  But unlike many early musicals, 42nd Street can hardly be described as creaky or dull.  Its slick production values, catchy songs, memorable choreography, and witty banter keep it fresh even after eighty years.

What’s on TCM: September 2013

Kim Novak VertigoHappy September, everybody!  TCM’s Summer Under the Stars may be drawing to a close, but that doesn’t mean September is going to be a boring month.  In fact, September looks like it’s going to be one of my favorite TCM months in a long time.

First of all, TCM will be kicking off their major Story of Film series.  Not only will they be showing Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film — An Odyssey documentary series on Monday and Tuesday nights, but TCM will also be playing many films featured in the documentary.  This reminds me a bit of the programming TCM did when they had their Moguls and Movie Stars series back in November of 2010.  However, unlike Moguls and Movie Stars, The Story of Film looks beyond the American film industry and branches into world cinema so they will be showing many films that were not discussed during Moguls and Movie Stars.  Fans of silent films have good reason to be excited for this because there will be many nights focusing on the silent era.  If you want to expand your knowledge of film history in general, you are not going to want to miss this series.  This series will continue into October.

If you’re an Alfred Hitchcock fan, you’re going to love the Sundays with Hitch series this month.  Every Sunday, almost all day long, will be dedicated to none other than the Master of Suspense.

Kim Novak will be the Star of the Month.  Her movies can be seen every Thursday this month.

Friday Night Spotlight also makes its return with a series called “Future Shock” hosted by Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, dedicated to movies about futuristic dystopias.  There are a few more modern movies in this line-up, but I can forgive that considering how many nights are dedicated to silent film this month.

It’s going to be a very busy month, so let’s take a closer look at the schedule…

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