I believe in Santa Claus

Doubting the existence of Santa is not new.  On September 21, 1897, the editor of The New York Sun newspaper published a reply to a letter from a an 8 year-old girl that has become a classic.  In it, he gives that famous line, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”  Now I am here to say, “I believe in Santa Claus.”  (click here for the entire article)  He also wrote, “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.”  Maybe part of the reason is that I am Santa Claus, to give the children a Santa to see.  Well, not all year, but a few special occasions each year.  But more on that later.  Let’s talk a little about who Santa Claus is.

St. Nicholas of Myrna

St. Nicholas of Myra with a white beard and the red attire of a bishop

Being in love with history, I am compelled to give a little history of the old fellow.  The name Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas (click here for more), a red-cloaked bishop with white hair and beard who brings gifts to good children on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6th.  His name comes from Saint Nicholas, the Greek Bishop of Myra (now in Turkey), who was known for his generosity (click here for more).  Early on, gifts were given to children in some countries on St. Nicholas Day, not on Christmas Day.  From Jolly Olde England came Father Christmas.  As early as the 1400’s, King Christmas would ride in the Christmas festival on a decorated horse.  Remember, Christmas trees were not a part of the English Christmas celebration until German Prince Albert brought them across the Channel when he married Queen Victoria (although they had been a part of the Royal Family’s since the time of George III), so decorating a horse had to do.  Over time, he also became known as Father Christmas, an old man in a long, fur-trimmed cloak.  However, King Christmas was known for bringing fine food and drink to the Christmas celebration, lots of it, rather than toys for children.

Father Christmas

Father Christmas

When the Puritans took control of England in the mid-17th century and banned the celebration of holidays, originally Holy Days, by anything but church attendance, Father Christmas was a casualty.  He also became a cause célèbre for the Royalists who longed for a return to the wilder, less restrictive days of the Stuart kings.  After the Restoration, when Charles II regained the throne, poor Father Christmas had served his purpose and was almost forgotten.  However, in the Victorian Age, he returned to prominence as the spirit of Christmas.  In fact, the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a version of Father Christmas, dispensing Christmas cheer from his torch.  Check out the movie version with George C. Scott for a great example of how he looked to the English of that era (more on that and other versions of the movie here). But how did he join with Sinterklaas to become Santa Claus?  That’s an American tale.

Thomas Nast's Santa Claus

Thomas Nast’s 1881 Santa Claus

When Clement Moore’s (click here for author dispute)  “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) was published in 1823, it created much of the mythos.  (click here for the entire poem)  This was the first time we have a sleigh with the reindeer numerated and named.  St. Nicholas is dressed in fur (not red, though) and comes down the chimney to fill stockings.  While much of this is in the Dutch tradition, he does his good work on Christmas Eve or early that morning, not on St. Nicholas Day!  Next came Thomas Nast’s drawings that appeared in Harper’s Weekly from 1863 through 1886.   Nast is best known for creating the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party and the donkey for the Democrats, but also did Santa.  His elaborate drawing of “Santa Claus and His Works,” was included in an 1869 printing of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and gave Santa his now-traditional red attire.  St. Nicholas had become Santa Claus.  Nast also gave us Santa’s home in the North Pole that he termed “Santa Claussville, N.P.”  and evolved Santa from a short elf into a full-grown man.  The drawing of Santa he did in 1881 is much like the current standard concept of Santa, except for the politically incorrect pipe.  Thank you, Thomas, for giving us our Santa.

Santa and Coca Cola

Santa and Coca Cola

In the movie “Miracle on 34th Street,” the young Alfred says, “there’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floatin’ around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism.”  Yet, it is a commercial ad campaign that refined our image of Santa Claus.  Nast’s Santa looks dated to us now, too 19th century.  It was Coca Cola that gave us the 20th century version that we still identify as the real Santa.  Although Coca Cola began using Santa in its ad campaigns in the 1920’s, it was Haddon Sundblom who drew the ones in the 1930’s until the 1960’s that we now consider the real Santa.  Since Santa didn’t and wouldn’t get any residuals from his images, the jolly old elf was the perfect promoter for Coke.  Still, we do get to enjoy the art and Haddon’s images are our image of Santa to this day, so that wasn’t all bad.  (click here for the Coca Cola Santa story)

Santa and a believer at the Roamin Angel Toy Drive in 2015

Santa Claus and a true believer                                  at the Roamin Angel Toy Drive in 2015

So what about me being Santa?  I believed in Santa as a child.  When I found that he was my dad, it didn’t damage my psyche.  I appreciated the magic that my parents gave me at Christmas, how they made the holiday even more special.  Since Christmas is about God’s gift of his Son as a child to mankind, isn’t there something appropriate about having a saint’s namesake bring gifts to children?  Even the idea of naughty and nice lists teaches accountability for our actions. I still believe in Santa.  In the mid-1970’s, my parents gave me a Santa suit for Christmas.  It was not an expensive one and they did so more as a joke, but it began a change in my life.  I wore it to our towing company Christmas party at a local restaurant, kidding around with the office staff and the drivers.  One of the drivers was sitting on my knee, telling me what he wanted for Christmas, when a waiter came up and told me a little boy would like to talk to Santa.  I went over to his table and took him on my knee.  As he told me of his Christmas wishes, it all changed.  It was no longer a joke.  I was taking on the mantle.  Since then, I have been Santa for many children, including my own daughter.  I only hope I have given as much joy to them as they have given to me.

Santa MacClaus and Mikey MacElf ring that bell.

Santa MacClaus and Mikey MacElf ring that bell.

I have also appeared as Santa MacClaus, ringing the bell for the Salvation Army at Christmas.  The response has been great.  Seeing people laugh at the Scottish Santa and contribute to help others at Christmas is wonderful.  Having the kids, eyes going wide to see Santa in a kilt, is hilarious.  Interestingly, none of the kids have a problem with that,  Santa is Santa no matter what.  And the cause is great for Claus.  All the money we raise goes to help others in our local community, whether it be for toys and clothes at Christmas or to keep the homeless from freezing to death in cold weather, it’s worth a little of my time.  Plus I love being Santa, bringing joy where I can.  I will keep doing it as long as I am able.  After all, I believe in Santa.

 

Requiem for an Artist: Mahlon Fawcett

Moment of glory- Lonnie introduced at the Roamin Angel breakfast before the car show

Rare moment of glory-
Lonnie introduced at the Roamin Angel breakfast before the car show.  I loaned him one of my Vette shirts.

It’s Christmas time.  For many years, my good friend, Mahlon Fawcett, known as Lonnie, would come up to our house in Lake Arrowhead for our annual Christmas party.  Although that has been many years ago, my mind wanders back to those parties and my friend who will not be celebrating Christmas this year.  He is no longer on this earth, but I will not let him be forgotten.  If you are on this website, you’ve met him.  He did all the banners for my website.  His zany sense of humor and off-the-wall ideas come through them, as they often did in his work.  Perhaps that limited the appeal of certain pieces he did.  Yet he would do commissioned work, even Disney characters for a child’s room.  He did great drawings of film notables like Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney, Basil Rathbone and even Harrison Ford for me that hang in my pool room.  Although he knew almost nothing about cars, he enjoyed doing caricatures of car people in their hot rods and classic cars at the annual Roamin Angels car shows.  He loved drawing and would do almost anything requested.  His passion was his art.

Lonnie titled this one "Bomber's Moon."

Lonnie titled this one “Bomber’s Moon.”

I met Lonnie in the early ’80’s.  John, his brother, worked for me as a tow truck driver.  Finding out that I had an interest in Sci-fi, he told me about Lonnie’s work and brought in a few pieces to show me, which I bought.  I kept asking John to meet his brother, but he said that Lonnie was a recluse who hated meeting people.  For a year or so, John would occasionally bring in pieces Lonnie had done and I would buy them.  Then, out of the blue, I got a call from Lonnie asking me to meet him.  I went to his small trailer, where he showed me more of his work and asked me if I was interested in anything.  When I hesitated, he said, “Just give me what you think it’s worth.”  That was Lonnie.  He loved to draw, but hated marketing himself.  As it turned out, brother John told Lonnie I was making him give the art to him, so Lonnie never got any of the money.  But Lonnie’s phone call ended that scam.  And, as Bogie said to Louis in Casablanca, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  Did I mention that Lonnie loved old movies even more than I do and could do voice impersonations of many of the old actors?  He did.

Time Travel ala  Lonie

Time Travel ala Lonnie

Over the years, Lonnie and I became good friends.  I tried to promote him and his art.  We went to a San Diego ComicCon in 1986, where he sold art at a table there.  Unfortunately, people there were looking for comic books, not original art.  I got him a review by Disney, which didn’t pan out for unknown reasons.  I got him an interview with DIC Entertainment that went quite well.  The very young executive we met with loved Lonnie’s art and described a new series that he thought Lonnie could do.  Lonnie and I both were on Cloud 9 when we left.  I kept telling Lonnie to do a follow-up call, but he felt it would be too pushy.  Then, months later, the series came out without Lonnie.  I tell this tale to demonstrate two facts: I believed in Lonnie, but he did not have enough self-confidence to push open the doors.  In retrospect, I feel guilt that I did not do more pushing for him because I could see he would not.  If I had, maybe Lonnie would have had a successful career in animation.  I’ll never know.

To understand a person, know his upbringing.  Lonnie’s father died when he was a teenager.  His mother was an alcoholic.  When he was an adult, she married a two-time convicted child abuser whom she chose over Lonnie.  Then there was his brother, John, who had been telling Lonnie that I was forcing him to give the artwork to me to keep his job.  His only romantic interest Lonnie married, but they soon separated and never met each other again.   I have no idea who she was or where she now is.  Out of this came a man who was kind and gentle, living to draw.  Lonnie was a big man when we met, over six feet and maybe 230 pounds, but never used his size to intimidate.  He was a good soul.

Christmas card Lonnie drew with my '72 Vette

“Sorry, Comet, if you want to be Robin, you’ve got to wear tights”  A Christmas card Lonnie drew for me with my ’72 Vette

Lonnie had no formal art training, but had natural talent and taught himself.  His passion for his art knew no bounds.  He would rather starve than forsake his calling.  At times, he nearly did.  I would give him money, but he always made sure he did something in return.  Any idea of a picture, any concept I had of a drawing he gladly did.  He gave as much as he received, probably more.  He did drawings of me as the Crusader he loved, back against the wall, bloodied but not defeated.  I asked him to do it after a trying day at work and it hangs on my wall in my office now.  He did Christmas cards with all the cars I owned over the years,  Anything that I asked, he did and did well.  I had so many panels he’d made that I gave a number of them back to him to sell.  Sadly, he entrusted them for consignment sale to Jim Van Hise who was, at best, very tardy on payments and who is now selling Lonnie’s artwork for which he never paid Lonnie a dime.  DO NOT BUY THESE ON eBay!!  If you love his work, I have his best pieces in my collection.  I will make copies of ones I have and have you send the money to a charity he appreciated in his honor.  I will only take the cost of reproduction and furnish proof of that amount.  Contact me if you are interested.

Star Wars tribute,  Obi-wan, are you there?

Star Wars tribute, Obi-wan, are you there?

Over the years, Lonnie spent time with us at our home.  I like to feel that we became the family he never had.  When he came up to Lake Arrowhead for our annual Christmas party, he participated in the video-taping we did of spoofed commercials.  He taped voice impersonations of John Wayne, Obi-wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness), Humphrey Bogart and Alfred the Batman’s butler for our answering machine.  He got to see snow for the first time at our house.  His R2-D2 snowman sculpture was exquisite.   When my family and I moved to the Isle of Man, my sister and her husband had a farewell party.  It was a nostalgia theme and everyone participated in lip-syncing to a Moldie Oldie.  I have a video recording of Lonnie mouthing the soprano solo of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with his group.  I still laugh.

Typical cars how caracature

Typical car show caricature of me and my T-Bird

After we moved overseas, things did not go well for Lonnie.  He had his demons, mainly drink and tobacco. Drink cost him his place to stay and maybe along with his diet, his life in the long run.  But he did conquer alcoholism after becoming a Christian, totally abstaining.  However, the long-term effects might have caused his diabetes.  Tobacco kept its hold on him as long as I knew him, but at least he did not die of lung cancer.  After we moved back stateside, we had him come up to visit us for the Roamin Angel car shows in September.  It gave him a sense of validation to hear the praise for the drawings he did.  For several years, it was a vacation for him.  The only ones he ever really had.  But it didn’t last.

Lonnie doing waht he loved most at the 2003 Roamin Angel car show: creating his art.

Lonnie doing what he loved most at the 2003 Roamin Angel car show: creating his art.

Lonnie, bested by ill health and infection, ended up in an extended care facility.  I watched as he deteriorated, finally ending up in a motorized wheelchair.  Yet his mind and his talent remained alive.  I visited him when I was in SoCal, taking him to breakfast.  He relished the real eggs, sausage and hash-browns that he did not get “inside.” He talked about the art he did for people who lived with him or cared for him, oft times for little or nothing.  He taught kids how to draw, calling them his students.  His goal was to inspire them with the same love of drawing that he had.  And he did, a real success for him.  Money was never the reason for his drawing, but rather the love of creating.  Greed was unknown to Lonnie.

 

The last Christmas Card Lonnie drew for me.

“Merry Christmas, Santa.  We thought one Moldie Oldie deserved another!”  The last Christmas card Lonnie drew for me.

I was in France when I got a message on my home phone to call the facility where he lived.  Because the facility only had my home phone, they had been trying to get me for a couple of days before I retrieved the messages.  Lonnie had died on October 27th after an operation to remove one of his feet because of infection.  Having been out of the country, I never knew he was going into the hospital.  I was the only person Lonnie had given any authority to for his affairs and they did not know what to do with his meager belongings.  Linda Gutman, a kind lady from his church, handled everything for me, even though she had not known him that well.  Lonnie is gone, but will never be forgotten.  People who have his art will see him whenever that look at his drawings.  Every time I sit in my office, working on my computer and every time I walk through the pool room, I remember him.  While he never achieved greatness in the eyes of the world, he did in mine.  And he was a good friend.  Merry Christmas, Lonnie.

 

 

 

Christmas Truce

French Soldiers Marching to War

French Soldiers Marching to War

When the “War to End All Wars” began in August, a hundred years ago, governments on both sides were so sure of a quick victory that they assured their soldiers that they would be home by Christmas.  As a line of opposing trenches stretched from the English Channel to the Alps and men settled into living ankle-deep in mud and futile, suicidal attacks against entrenched riflemen, machine guns and cannons, the men soon realized it to be a vain hope.  Both sides were too strong and too determined for the war to have a quick conclusion.  Christmas would be spent in the trenches, with rats and trench foot instead of reindeer and stockings for Santa.

Washington Crossing the Delaware- He Well Might Have Been Standing in the Flat-Bottomed Boat

Washington Crossing the Delaware on Christmas night – He well might have been standing in the flat-bottomed boat.

The First World War was different from previous wars in so many ways.  Killing was much more efficient, with machine guns and monstrous cannons.  It was truly the birth of mechanized warfare, with trucks for transportation, airplanes for bombing and tanks for driving over the top of infantrymen.  And it spelled the end of armies going into winter quarters.  Up until the end of the nineteenth century, armies would have an unspoken truce during the harsh months of winter.  It was due to the impassable roads and difficulty of moving and provisioning of the troops in those conditions rather than compassion for the troops.  The men would usually be housed in rude cabins, where they would spend Christmas in time of war.  That is why George Washington’s attack on Trenton on the 26th of December in 1776 was such a surprise to the Hessians; he attacked in weather not considered suitable for military maneuvers.  While the mechanization of the armies did not eliminate those problems, it reduced them enough that there was no pause in the fighting for winter.  Christmas in 1914, the first of the war, would be spent in the muddy, cold trenches.

German Postcard from World War I

German Postcard from World War I

In an effort to to alleviate the misery of Christmas in the trenches, both the British and German governments sent packages and cards to their troops.  The Germans also received small Christmas trees with candle-lit lanterns.  In Germany, the main Christmas celebration is on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day.  So the German troops lighted their lanterns and set the trees in front of their trenches, then started singing Christmas carols.  Since there had been a sudden frost, the landscape had a cover of white, like snow-frosted Christmases back home for both sides.  Understand that in many places the opposing trenches were so close that the soldiers had often yelled taunts at each other in the months before.  Now the lights and music of Christmas wafted across the war-torn terrain.  Since these were predominately men who were Christians and might even have visited each others’ countries before the war, no doubt the soldiers began to think that it was not right to kill each other on such a holy day.  They started singing the carols together.  They started calling to each other, with well-wishing rather than taunts.  Then, on Christmas morning, something most unusual happened.  In a number of places, the shooting did not resume with the daybreak.  An ad-hoc truce had started.

Private H. Scrutton of the Essex Regiment described it this way: “As I told you before our trenches are only 30 or 40 yards away from the Germans. This led to an exciting incident the other day. Our fellows have been in the habit of shouting across to the enemy and we used to get answers from them.  We were told to get into conversation with them and this is what happened:-
From out trenches: “Good morning Fritz.” (No answer).
“Good morning Fritz.” (Still no answer).
“GOOD MORNING FRITZ.”
From German trenches: “Good morning.”
From our trench: “How are you?”
“All right.”
“Come over here, Fritz.”
“No. If I come I get shot.”
“No you won’t. Come on.”
“No fear.”
“Come and get some fags, Fritz.”
“No. You come half way and I meet you.”
“All right.”
One of our fellows thereupon stuffed his pocket with fags and got over the trench. The German got over his trench, and right enough they met half way and shook hands, Fritz taking the fags and giving cheese in exchange.”

Rifleman C. H. Brazier of the Queen’s Westminsters, of Bishop’s Stortford, described what happened to him in this way: “You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us, ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ”

Sharing a Truce Cigarette

Sharing a Truce Cigarette

This was not planned.  There was no coordination to the truce.  It was not universal.  In some places, the firing continued and men died.  Germany had been a united country less than 50 years and not all German troops reacted the same way.  In one location, the British who came out of their trenches were fired upon by Prussian troops (much more regimented and militaristic than other Germans) and a couple were killed.  However, some Saxon troops near them threatened to shoot them and they stopped.  The Saxons even ventured out to put up a table to host their British enemies.  During Christmas Day, many locations down the line had an unofficial truce.  Hymns, carols and other songs were sung by the soldiers from both sides.  Souvenirs, food, tobacco and stories were shared.  Footballs (soccer balls) appeared and were kicked around.  There was even time to bury the dead who had fallen in no-man’s land, where trying to reach them would have meant almost certain death.

All too soon, the day of celebration was over and the killing began again.  On the same land where the day before soldiers had shared food, stories and bon humour, men were again mowed down by machine guns.  Although the top brass tried to stifle news of the 1914 Christmas Truce, censorship had not yet been formalized and stories leaked out to the general public from soldiers’ letters home.   However, as the war and killing ground on, the Truce was all but forgotten and never happened again.

Sainsbury TV Ad

Sainsbury TV Ad

Although briefly depicted in a couple of movies, the 2005 movie “Joyeux Noël” was devoted to the Christmas Truce and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival that year.  Now, on the centennial of that truce, Sainsbury supermarkets has made a TV ad depicting it, including the British Tommy handing a Sainsbury chocolate bar to his German counterpart (click here).  While some have claimed that this is blatant commercialism, at least it brings to light this most unusual event.  In doing so, it gives food for thought.  As a Highland Regiment officer wrote in The Times in 1915:  “It is a great hope for future peace when two great nations hating each other as foes have seldom hated, one side vowing eternal hate and vengeance and setting their venom to music, should on Christmas day and for all that the word implies, lay down their arms, exchange smokes and wish each other happiness.”

 

Ring Dem Bells- For the Salvation Army

The Duke

The Duke

While Duke Ellington made “Ring Dem Bells” famous in 1930, the Salvation Army has put it into practice for many years.  Ever since the San Francisco Salvation Army first utilized crab-cooking kettles in 1891 to collect money to help the needy, red kettles have become a part of the Christmas season.  While I can’t swear they used bells that first Christmas, we expect them now.  The kettles have become the biggest fund-raiser for the Army’s charitable programs for the whole year.  Although the Army does pay people to ring the bells when needed, they love it when volunteers ring the bells for two reasons: it saves money so there is more for their work with those in need and the volunteers are much more enthusiastic than the paid workers.  The kettle return for volunteers is almost always higher than for paid workers.  After all, they can arm-twist friends and acquaintances without any qualms.  I know.  I ring that bell.

Mikey and the Scottish Santa.  Great knees, huh?

Mikey and the Scottish Santa. Great knees, huh?

Bell ringing can be fun.  On behalf of the Gold Country Celtic Society, I recently took a shift with my friend Mikey.  Although he is a bagpiper and has played them when we’ve done it previously, we were going to be inside of a local supermarket and he thought it might be a problem.  Judging by the response, probably that would not have been the case.  I came as the Scottish Santa and it was a real kick.  Probably 99% of the people would break into a grin when we greeted them with a “Merry Christmas” as they came in the door.  I had one man ask what tartan I was wearing.  “McClaus, of course,”  I replied.  The women were interesting, with several of them stuffing money in the kettle while commenting on our good-looking knees.  When one woman I know came into the store, I said, “Merry Christmas, Carol.”  She looked at me quizzically and said, “How do you know my name?”  Mikey said, “Santa knows everyone’s name.”  But the kids were my favorites.  Handing them a candy cane and seeing the look in their eyes gives me a thrill every time.  As a kid who believed in Santa, I can relate.  As Santa now, I can enjoy.  Although the two hours standing after putting up Christmas decorations all over the house earlier did get to my aging back, it was well worth it.

salvation-armyOkay, here comes the pitch.  If you’re a part of any business, club or society, take a day and “ring dem bells.”  It is fun, rewarding and helps your community.  We’ve had a “Battle of the Media” between The Union newspaper and KNCO radio.  I don’t know who will win, but The Union publicized their day and gave away a lot of free stuff.  All that for bragging rights and a plaque.  If you want to have a kick while doing good, click here for your local Salvation Army location and sign up for bell ringing.

Merry Christmas from the Scottish Santa.

 

A Christmas Carol

To me, no other Christmas movie can come close to matching A Christmas Carol.  After all, no other Christmas screenplay has been based on work by a writer of the quality of Charles Dickens.  That being said, since his writings are public domain, anyone and their kid brother can make a movie based upon the book.  Or cartoon.  According to the great guru Wikipedia, there have been 22 film versions, 26 TV versions, with the first one (Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost) being made in 1901.  There have also been theatrical versions, radio versions, audio recordings, parodies and even 3 operas.  When you add what Wikipedia terms “ Pastiches, continuations, and other uses,” it’s a tremendously long list.  Since my time and space as well as your interest are limited, I will confine my reviews to a very few that I consider the most notable live-person effort.  That means if your favorite is Mickey’s Christmas Carol, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, the Muppet Christmas Carol, the Smurfs A Christmas Carol or any other such version, it will not be covered.  Sorry, I just have a hard time taking cartoon or puppet Scrooge or Marley’s ghost seriously.  I also will be ignoring ones that change the time and/or locale of the story, such as such pathetic efforts as Scrooged and an American Christmas Carol.  Besides being poorly done efforts, I am a traditionalist.  I even have a live tree rather than a fake and like my Christmas carols sung in the way they were composed.  I will go in year order.

1938CCA Christmas Carol – 1938 with Reginald Owen as Scrooge
Although this was not the first one I ever watched, it is the oldest one.  From my readings about the movie versions, it is also the first really watchable version.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t capture the real essence, the mood, of Dicken’s book.  Scrooge is a bit crotchety, somewhat arrogant, but not cruel and mean-spirited.  His change at the end does not have the dramatic quality that better versions have.  His makeup is also not the best.  The grittiness of the book is also lacking, without the starving poor and no Ignorance and Want under the robe of Christmas Yet to Come.  Greedy thieves don’t ransack the dead Scrooge’s possessions.  Gone is the scene of the ghosts of those who were greedy in life unable to help the living needy.   Gene Lockhart’s Bob Cratchit is too much of a jolly buffoon.  Tiny Tim is a healthy-looking, nonentity that is hard to care about.  The Ghost of Christmas past is a sweet-looking young woman without any strangeness to her.  Fred and Bess are courting, not married, and too much time is devoted to them.  When you add in that Belle, Scrooge’s greatest sacrifice to the god of mammon, is completely missing makes this a saccharine film of a salty tale.  Watch it once, but don’t make it your yearly tradition.  I rank it as the worst of the four I am reviewing.

1951CCScrooge (A Christmas Carol in America) – 1951 with Alistair Sim as Scrooge
This is the first version I saw on TV as a child in the mid-Fifties.  Marley’s ghost scared me so badly I had nightmares.  Many rate this version as the all-time best.  I rate it a close second, mainly because of Sim.  He is a harsh and cold-hearted Scrooge.  You don’t like him, but you are not meant to.  It has much more of a Dickens feel than the earlier verison, with the ghosts of the once-greedy helpless to aid the needy living when Marley’s ghost exits by the window.  Yet the screenwriter Noel Langley felt he could improve upon Dickens’ book.  He spent far too long on Mrs. Dilbar, the unnamed charwoman in the book.  Belle becomes a social-working Alice.  Fan becomes Scrooge’s younger sister who dies in childhood rather than his older one.  The worst crime against the book was the addition of Mr. Jonkin.  Evidently, Langley felt there was a gap in the original between Fezziwig and the formation of the Marley and Scrooge partnership.  Having Mr. Jorkin financially destroy Fezziwig and then be destroyed by Marley and Scrooge was not necessary to make the story work.  It is definitely worth multiple views.  However, while Sim gets top marks, the changes to the story and average acting of some of the supporting cast makes this version the runner-up for the top spot.

1984CCA Christmas Carol – 1984 with George C. Scott as Scrooge
This is the best and most faithful to the book.  While now the property of the Hallmark Channel, it is obvious they did not make it.  The cast is excellent and all portray their characters with amazing skill.  As Scrooge, Scott chose to make him have a sense of humor, but a twisted one.  He is unfeeling and cold, with a mercenary streak that makes Madoff look like Santa Claus.  There are only two criticisms of this Scrooge: he is portrayed by an American and he is not quite the Dickens version.  However the rest of the movie is almost perfect.  By filming in Shrewsbury, England, phony sets were not needed to portray England of that era.  As I said, the cast is awesome.  David Warner’s Bob Crachit, Susanna York’s Mrs. Crachit, Frank Finlay’s Jacob Marley, Edward Woodward’s Ghost of Christmas Present, Roger Rees’ Fred Hollywell, and Liz Smith’s Mrs. Dilbar were all worthy of an Oscar for Best Supporting.  Even the minor roles were well acted.  The grittiness when Mrs. Dilbar sells Scrooge’s bedclothes is spot on and the faces of Want and Ignorance are haunting.  The scene where Mrs. Cratchit is sewing and Bob Cratchit arrives home after Tiny Tim’s death is a real tear-jerker.  Even the original song “God Bless us, Everyone” sounds perfectly period, as does all the music used.  The music is another thing that makes this version stand out.  I read a review that criticized Tiny Tim, saying he was talentless.  I thought the kid did a great job of portraying a sickly child.  The scene where Scrooge leaves his business and sees Tim is classic.

Tiny Tim: [outside Scrooge’s office] Merry Christmas, Mister Scrooge.
Ebenezer Scrooge: Don’t beg on this corner, boy.
Tiny Tim: I’m not begging, Sir. I’m Tim Cratchit. I’m waiting for my father.
Ebenezer Scrooge: Tim Cratchit, eh? Well, you’ll have a long wait, then, won’t you?
Tiny Tim: Merry Christmas, Sir!
Ebenezer Scrooge: Humbug.

It defines Tim and Scrooge so well.  The oft-wry humor is a big bonus and meakes the dialogue more realistic.  If I wanted to pick nits, I would add that Scrooge dressed too well.  Also, I do not understand why the ghosts outside Scrooge’s window when Marley flew out were omitted.  While not perfect, it was done so well that I consider this to be the top dog.  If you only watch one version, this should be it.

1999CCA Christmas Carol – 1999 with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge
As a fan of Patrick Stewart and a Trekkie, I had great hopes for this version.  But Stewart came off a little too much Captain Picard and a little light on the Scrooge.  Although the one that worked the hardest to be faithful to the original book, some of the feeling of that book was lost.  The Cratchits looked the most like underclass Londoners of that era, but did not garner the empathy that the fine acting of the 1984 version did.  On the whole, the acting was competent, but not great.  If strict authenticity is your bag, it might be your favorite.  If you want high authenticity with the best acting, it will not be.  It is worth watching, but not being made the one to re-watch every year.

These are the cream of the crop.  All have a few flaws, some more than others.  All take a liberty here and there with the original story, some more than others.  All are worth watching. However, you might have another favorite, one I have not even mentioned.  Feel free to express your opinion.  But, whichever version you prefer, I say in the words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us, everyone!”

Ghost of Christmas Past

xmas-past

The Ghost of Christmas Past

In Charles Dicken’s classic tale of yuletide fiction, A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by three ghosts: Past, Present and Yet to Come.  The Ghost of Christmas Past reminds him of what Christmases were like before he became obsessed with amassing more and more wealth.  While the Ghost only shows Scrooge events from his own life, in this modern age we are able to share Christmas happenings in many, many fictional characters’ (and, occasionally, real people’s) lives.  Hallmark floods their channel with a plethora of such tales, mostly not worth even one watch.  However, certain classics have become so dear to my heart that I try to watch them every year.  In that Christmas light, I will give a brief critique of a few of these movies that have stood the test of time.  I will not give you a synopsis since I hope you have seen them already or will be inspired to do so and a synopsis would spoil them for you.  They are in random order.  Just as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, they appear at a time of their own choosing.  But they may not be your favorites.  If you would like to disagree with me or add your own, feel free to make a comment.  I will post it unless it goes against the spirit of Christmas.

its-a-wonderful-life-its-a-wonderful-lifeI.  It’s a Wonderful Life
History:  This movie has become so ubiquitous for the Christmas season that it is shown in different languages (French and Spanish) in the Home Alone series.   While not a box-office smash when it was released in 1946 (26th out of 400 in 1947 and losing RKO $525,000), it did edge out another holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street.  Although nominated for six Academy Awards, it only won for Technical Achievement for its snow.  However, it was television that made Wonderful Life famous.  Although it started being shown in the 1950’s, it was when National Telefilm Associates (who ended up with the film’s ownership) let the copyright lapse in 1974 that it become the most-shown holiday film.  Every podunk station and nationals like TBS flooded the airwaves with it.  VHS tape makers did the same.  The movie was in serious danger of dying from overexposure.  In 1993, Republic Pictures regained control by way of owning the film rights to the short story upon which the script was based.  Now it is only shown twice a year on NBC.
Trivia:
1.  The film is based on a short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern that he couldn’t sell.  In 1943, he sent it as an extended Christmas card to 200 friends and, in 1945, self-published it.
2. The snow used in the film was made with such elements as sugar and soap flakes. Previously, cornflakes were used which necessitated the sound track to be made afterwords because of the crunching cereal when the actors walked on them.
3. Although cop Bert and cabdriver Ernie have the same name as two Muppet pals, Sesame Street writer Jerry Juhl claims it was pure coincidence.
4. The scene where the dance floor opened to a swimming pool and everybody takes a dip came about when Capra found out that the gym at Beverly Hills High had that pool under the floor and added it.  Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer from the Little Rascals was Donna Reed’s disgruntled suitor who pulled the floor away.
5. Bobby Anderson, the young George Bailey, was also in another Christmas classic, The Bishop’s Wife.
6. In 1947, an FBI report stated that the film’s portrayal of Mr. Potter as an evil banker was anti-capitalistic and “this was a common trick used by the communists.”  Yet, the film makes the small businessmen heroes who work hard to get ahead, so it is definitely not communistic.
7. There is a sequel scheduled to be released in 2015.   Sequels made to follow stand-alone films and books are notoriously bad.
My take: The plot is a bit schmaltzy and predictable, but it does have a strong message that everyone is important and has an impact in the world, knowingly or unknowingly.  And, because of the excellent cast and some pretty good lines, it works.  I mean, James Stewart, Donna Reed, Ward Bond, and Lionel Barrymore?  Wow.  The minor characters like Bert the cop, Ernie the cab driver, and forgetful Uncle Billy (Scarlet’s dad from Gone with the Wind) top it off.  I must mention that, technically, Clarence was a ghost rather than an angel.  But how would it sound to say, “Every time a bell rings a ghost gets his wings?”  It is not my favorite, but definitely deserves to be considered a classic.  It’s the epitome of a “warm and fuzzy” Christmas movie.  It also has a fascinating history and tons of trivia.

miracleII.  Miracle on 34th Street
History: Film writer Valentine Davies wrote the story, which he also converted into a novella.  Unlike so many Christmas movies that are filmed in summer for release in winter, Miracle was released in May because studio-head Darryl Zanuck felt more people went to movies in the summer than in the winter.  Because of that, Santa’s role was downplayed in the pre-release promos.  Although It’s a Wonderful Life took a one-place higher standing in box-office by one, Miracle took three Oscars: Edmund Gwenn as Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Valentine Davies for Best Original Story and Best Writing, Screenplay.  Not bad for a Christmas movie.  Although Maureen O’Hara and John Payne are listed as the stars of the show, it is really Edmund Gwenn’s.  No wonder he won the Oscar.  Perhaps the real miracle was to get the arch-competitors Macy’s and Gimble’s to agree to let their names (and the Macy’s store) be used in the movie.
Trivia:
1.  The parade footage is real, from the 1946 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Ed Gwenn really was the Santa in the parade and addressed the crowds afterwards in front of Macy’s.
2.  The scene where Ed Gwenn speaks Dutch to a war-refugee little girl came about when the director found out that he spoke that language.  The little girl also spoke Dutch, but with an American accent.
3. Ed Gwenn gained 30 pounds for the role so that he would have “a round little belly, that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.”  When he went up for his Oscar, he quipped, “Now I know there is a Santa Claus!”
4. 8-year-old Natalie Wood actually believed Ed Gwenn was Santa Claus until the wrap party.
5.  There are great cameos by character actors Thelma Ritter as a harried mother and Jack Albertson as a mail sorter.
My take: Okay, I love Santa.  I believed in Santa as a kid.  Ed Gwenn was the perfect Santa, both in looks and in attitude.  Sure, the plot is unrealistic, especially in some of the courtroom scenes, but the whole movie is masterfully played by the actors.  Again, what a cast!  Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Ed Gwenn, Natalie Wood, Porter Hall, Gene Lockhart and the inimitable William Frawley.  As the political boss who cares about nothing but getting his boy (Judge Harper) re-elected, Frawley steals several scenes.  When he says to the judge, “I don’t care what you do with old whisker puss, but if you go back in there and rule that there’s no Santa Claus, you better start looking for that chicken farm right now,” it is the height of expediency.  To him, it’s only about how the unions and businesses will react if Santa is declared a phony.  Right or wrong, truth or lies, none of that matters.   All that matters is staying in power. And that sure hasn’t changed.  But in the end, truth, justice and Santa Claus win out.  However, unlike most movies with Santa, the watcher is left to decide if Kris is really THE Santa Claus.  While the plot may have a couple of holes, it hangs together pretty well.  This is the best Santa Claus movie ever made, bar none.  I love it and watch it annually.

thebishopswifeIII.  The Bishop’s Wife
History: This film was actually filmed twice.  The first time had Cary Grant as the bishop (obviously an Episcopal one, since he’s married) and David Niven as the angel under the direction of William Seiter. Preview audiences hated it.  Samuel Goldwyn fired Seiter and brought in Henry Koster as director.  The first thing he did was swap Grant’s and Niven’s roles.  Grant liked changing from a frumpy bishop to a dapper angel.  Teresa Wright was originally the bishop’s wife, but Loretta Young replaced her in the new version.  It probably had something to do with the fact that Teresa had become pregnant, which was not in the script.  Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett did some uncredited rewriting to improve the script.  It was released in 1947, a good year for Christmas movies.  Although nominated for 5 Academy Awards, it only won for Best Sound.
Trivia:
1.  Karolyn Grimes, the bishop’s daughter Debbie, also played Zuzu, George Bailey’s daughter in It’s a Wonderful Life.  Busy year for her.
2.  Bobby Anderson, the young George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, played the leader of one of the snowball-throwing teams.
3.  At the time of the re-filming, almost a million bucks had already been spent.
4.  U.S. Champion ice skater Eugene Turner was Grant’s stand-in for the pond scene.  An ice pond/rink was actually built on the set.
5.  Cary Grant and Loretta Young did not get along.  He was a perfectionist and she was not.  Grant halted production at one point so that windows could be properly “frosted” for winter weather.
6. Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Hamilton) also played Henry Higgin’s mother in the movie My Fair Lady.
7.  An inferior and boring remake was made in 1996 named The Preacher’s Wife.
My take: There is no other Christmas movie quite like it.  It is well written and, although heads toward the expected happy holiday ending, has some interesting twists along the way.  Having Dudley (Grant) fall in love with Julia (Young) and have her reject him is one of them.  A great cast (which is true of all of these selections) includes Cary Grant, David Niven, Loretta Young, Monty Woolley, James Gleason, Gladys Cooper and Elsa Lancaster.  Some of the throw-away scenes are classic in and of themselves.  When the bishop (Niven) visits rich, domineering donor Mrs. Hamilton and gets stuck by the seat of his pants to a recently-varnished chair, he paces impatiently while awaiting a fresh pair of trousers while the chair is literally hanging on behind him.  She offers him a seat.  He sits down on his attached chair and says, “Thank you, I already have one.” And neither of them crack a smile.  In the end, as Dudley watches all the mortals who no longer know him walk into church, there is a poignancy.  He is the eternal wanderer, an immortal without a home.  There are a few scenes that are overplayed and Loretta Young seems overly naive to not recognize angel Cary Grant’s attraction to her, but the movie is still great.  Taken as a whole, it is a favorite of mine.

holiday-inn-movieIV.  Holiday Inn
History: While not exactly a Christmas movie (it’s about an inn that is open on holidays), it does start and finish on Christmas.  Well, almost.  The denouement is on New Year’s Eve.  Irving Berlin’s music is the glue for this romp through the holidays and there is a song for most of them, supposedly written by innkeeper Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby).   Berlin’s “Easter Parade” had been in a previous movie, but he wrote the rest of them for this movie.  It was started before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and finished afterwards, hence the patriotic clips shown during Jim’s song on the 4th of July.  The black-face routine for the song “Abraham” for Lincoln’s Birthday has become controversial and has been edited out in some versions.  The song “Careful with my Heart” was expected to be the big hit, but “White Christmas” shot to the top of the charts.  Interestingly enough, Cosby’s lackluster reaction to the song when he first heard it was, “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.”
Trivia:
1.  When Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) stumbles into Jim’s Holiday Inn after being jilted on New Year’s Eve, Astaire actually had two drinks of bourbon before the first take.  He had another one before each following take. The seventh (last) take was used in the film.
2.  Marjorie Reynolds never made it big on the big screen, but did land the role of William Bendix’s wife in The Life of Riley on TV.
3.  When Reynolds was dunked in a creek for the scene where she was riding in a car on the way to the inn, the director told her to dry off in Crosby’s dressing room, the only heated one.  Crosby unexpectedly arrived and ordered the shivering Reynolds out.
4.  Reynolds danced very well, but Martha Mears was her voice for the singing.
5.  The concept of a holiday inn, the set and the song “White Christmas” were used in 1954 for the movie White Christmas.  Crosby returned in it, but Astaire opted out after reading the script.  Danny Kaye replaced him for that dog.
6.  “White Christmas” was the all-time best selling single until 1997, when Elton John’s tribute to Princess Di, “Good-bye, England’s Rose” overtook it.
7.  The Holiday Inn motel chain was named after this movie when it was founded in 1952.
My take: The plot is simplistic and predictable, but it’s an enjoyable movie.  The singing, the dancing and the sheer fun of it carry the day.  There is light-hearted dialogue and the delightful Marjorie Reynolds is a joy to behold, dubbed singing or not.  The cast has stars, talented then-unknowns and great character actors: Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds, Virginia Dale, Walter Abel, Louise Beavers and Irving Bacon are all great in their parts.  Astaire’s solo dance number, “Say it with Firecrackers,” goes head-to-head with Bing’s “White Christmas” for best-of-show.  It’s a sit-back-and-relax show that entertains rather than gives an adrenalin rush.

V.  A Christmas Carol
There have been so many films, cartoons, etc., made of this classic Christmas tale that I will devote my next post to this one alone.

Happy New Year and Hogmanay

American traditions surrounding New Year’s Eve and Day are limited and not from the depths of history.  Getting together with party hats and champagne while watching the glittering ball descend in Times Square on TV (recorded three hours earlier, if your celebrating on the West Coast) is not exactly an ancient tradition.  True, by American standards it is time-worn since it started in 1907 (not the TV part, which started in 1956), but by British standards that is rather modern.  To gain a little age for your New Year’s Eve next party, consider a Hogmanay celebration.

Hogmanay is mainly found in Scotland, although the word might have Manx origins.  Then again, it might have French or even Norse ones.  Since even the meaning of the word has been lost in the mists of time, take you choice.  The first written reference to it comes from 1604, which would indicate it is not from some Celtic festival the way Halloween is from Samhain.  Still, it does have three hundred years on the descending ball.   Probably the popularity came from the time when the Presbyterian leadership decided that the sometimes-wild holy-day (See the origins of the word holiday?) festivals of Scotland’s Roman Catholic past were unseemly and irreligious, so they banned the celebration of Yule (Christmas).  The Scottish populace found a way to still have a party: go a little wild at Hogmanay to celebrate the new year.  Since it was no longer tied to a holy day, it became an excuse to tie on.  Lest you think it was a wild bacchanalia,  certain traditions became attached to it over the years that are quite cool.

Robert Burns, who wrote the poem Auld Lang Syne in 1788. Music was added later.

In Scotland, often  every gets in a circle, crosses arms and holds hands while singing Auld Lang Syne.  Obviously this didn’t happen in 1604 since Robert Burns, who wrote Auld Lang Syne, was still a about a century and half away from being born.  First-footing is likely the oldest and is followed in places other than Scotland as well.  For good luck, a dark-haired man is to cross the threshold at midnight with bread, whisky and coal.  The bread can vary, often a pastry-encrusted fruit cake named black bun, and some might swap spirits with the whisky, it is an enduring custom.  The gifts represent food, drink and warmth of the hearth, all that is necessary for happiness and wealth for the coming year.  Partying oft continues all through January 2nd, a Bank Holiday.

If you are interested in Hogmanay, there are many books and sites devoted to this tradition.  So, next year, consider first-footing with friends rather than watching the ball drop in New York on TV.  Kilts are optional.  Try it, you’ll like it.

Victorian Christmas

For the last 35 years, the historic Gold Rush city of Nevada City has hosted Victorian Christmas.  It occurs on certain Wednesday and Sunday nights in December.  Being in the Sierra Nevada foothills, weather can vary from warm to snowy and anywhere in between.  While most of the goods sold are crafty rather than Christmassy, the city does try for a vintage feel, encouraging vendors to dress Victorian while carolers and other musicians provide the sounds of the season.  Many restaurants and other vendors sell a variety of foods and there is always mulled wine.  Buses bring loads of tourists to wander the streets and buy food, trinkets, crafts, wine or whatever else is for sale

Get you hot chili here!

This year I was there, but not to buy anything.  I was selling chili in support of the 150 year-old Nevada Theatre.  I must admit that chili hardly seems Victorian to me, but the theater is, so I signed up.  I did try to appear Victorian, with a top hat and Inverness cape, even if my product was Tex-Mex.  It was a chilly night and I did not miss using the homophone to push my product. While waving a sign with “Hot Chili” is not particularly fun, I did enjoy a little banter with the crowd,

“Hot chili,” I would say.  “Good for the heart, good for the soul.  Guaranteed to improve your sex life.  If it doesn’t, came back here tomorrow and tell me.”  Of course we all knew I would be far away the next night.  I got a lot of laughs and comments, some of which were a bit ribald.  All of it was in fun.  I must admit, I did not have any of the chili.  I try to avoid beef and pork, plus I was with my wife, Kelly.  She really doesn’t like chili, so we grabbed a quick, mediocre slice of pizza (the restaurants were packed and we had little time) before reporting for duty.  I did, however, partake of a couple of glasses of wine the Nevada Theatre Commission provided to fortify its workers.

Get your hot goose here!

I do love Nevada City.  With a Fourth of July Parade that feels like it was time-warped from the Music Man and Victorian Christmas, it has a quaint and lovable atmosphere.  I love the Nevada Theatre.  It has a great history, dating back to 1865 when it was built from used bricks left around after one of many fires of that era.  Mark Twain even performed there.  However, if I am on the commission long enough, I might suggest something more Victorian than chili.  A little goose perhaps?