A Christmas & New Year Musical Double Feature: In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and Carnival Night (1956)

It looks like a Christmas card out my window right now.

I love Hindi films, but it's hard to find anything that fits the Anglo-Germanic Christmas mood that I'm used to indulging this time of year. I mean, one could certainly indulge in a Kashmiri or Himachal Pradesh-centric film. Something set in Shimla, maybe?

Off the top of my head, I guess maybe Junglee (1961) and Anamika (1973) might be a good sexy/snowy/grumpy-male double-feature mash-up. (I think I'm going to finally finish Junglee in time for New Years).

Or maybe the triple Shashi: Sharmilee (1971), Aa Gale Lag Jaa (1973), and Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965) for varying degrees of snowy, poetic, patriarchy-tinged goodness. Or Kabhi Kabhie or Lootera or Fanaa or anything Yash Raj filmed in the European Alps (wait, the list is maybe too long now).

Himachal Pradesh (Source).
But, all these lovely films would still be sans Christmas trappings or songs or tropes.

Anyway, for this Christmas at least, it's time for a Holiday Double Feature, Old Hollywood & Soviet Russia style.

For Christmas (if you celebrate such things), I give you "In the Good Old Summertime" (1949) . . . a Hollywood musical starring Judy Garland, Van Johnson, S.Z. Sakall, Buster Keaton (not in a silent film for once, I know!) and yes, I will get to the irony of its title in a moment.

As for the stars, Judy Garland probably needs no introduction. But her lead man in this film may.

Van Johnson was sort of the Sanjeev Kumar or the Jeetendra (the early years) of 40's and 50's Hollywood. He was the moderately bankable boy next door, with that sort of dimply, aloof charm that could be counted on to win the girl in the B+ picture, or walk away from the triumphant hero all noble-like in the A+ film. I think I probably saw him in over a dozen indistinguishable musicals growing up (during my very long TCM phase), many of those with June Allyson or Esther Williams. I honestly can't remember much of any of them, but they were a great musical timepass after school (or to entertain while trying to finish those endless little chores that come with being part of a big family).

This film also may need some introducing. I myself didn't see it until a couple years ago (and hadn't really heard of it before then, either), when I dropped by my best friend's house for some gossip and extended conversation.To my annoyance, K wasn't interested in chatting (which I was banking on for some reason that day). All her attention was fixed on this movie she had just started. I took one look at the screen and immediately wrote it off. I saw 1950ish looking musical and my first thought was, "Yawn." Been there, done that.

But, stubborn woman that K is, she maintained that it was one of her favorites and that I was going to love it, too. Before I knew it, I was, indeed, sucked-in. Even when I realized that it was another remake of that ONE story that never worked for me before . . . I couldn't stop watching.

Because, yeah, this was an puffy-sleeved, barbershop quartet laden, musical version of Shop Around the Corner (1940), or as most people know it, from the much later adaptation, You've Got Mail (1998). I confess I don't like You've Got Mail at all. *Gasp.* And frankly, I was bored by Shop Around the Corner. *Double gasp!*

The plot irritated me. Two people who hate one another in real life, and yet are (unbeknownst to them) carrying on an anonymous romantic pen pal relationship with one another? How silly! How contrived! How improbable that they could ever get over their hatred once the secret was revealed!

Yet, this time, the story finally seemed charming.

It didn't hurt that Judy Garland and Van Johnson were playing the foolish lovers/haters this time. (I'll forgive Judy almost any silliness on-screen, because she usually comes off as genuine as her problems.)

Plus, it was so pretty . . . with that very specific type of 40's/50's era reddish film print* that I love (a weird cinematic fetish of mine) . . .

*[Like this gorgeous Soviet film about dueling sexes and love quadrangles (Different Fortunes, 1957) that I am heartbroken hasn't been released widely with eng subs.] 

Different Fortunes/Many Roads/Different Fates, USSR, 1957. 

. . . Judy Garland was still in her best decade here (in my opinion) and it was also set in Chicago, which is close enough to Minnesota to seem homey . . . and wait, was this a Christmas movie? With a title like, "In the Good Old Summertime?"

According to my rules, a film can be considered a Christmas movie IF:

  • At least half the film (especially if it's the end/climactic half) takes place during Christmas season
  • If somebody tries to put the moves on somebody else under a decorated fir tree (see above)
  • If a great deal of the film takes place in a department store or quaint shop filled with holiday decor
This film meets all the above criteria. Yet none of that criteria even matters if Judy Garland happens to sing a Christmas song during the course of the film. (Extra points if she's singing to a child.) Then you know you are not only watching a Christmas movie, but a Christmas classic. 

This was definitely a cute song. But I had a feeling that the kid wasn't really as into it as he was supposed to be.

Plus, the cast of characters was just eclectic and amusing enough to distract from any irritation with the antics of the dueling leads.

S.Z. (Cuddles) Sakall is one of my favorite That Guy(s) of Old Hollywood (especially in Yankee Doodle Dandy). I also like this bit TCM docu-mercial on him...

He usually plays the very-German fellow (though S.Z. was actually Hungarian by birth) who controls the money-bags, and therefore the other characters by default. In this film, he is generous and overly-emotional, totally immature, and also totally adorable. He also gets to showcase his own musical talents (just wait for that mournful gypsy fiddling) . . . apparently he really was quite the artiste!

Buster Keaton is also deadpan and hilarious as the nephew of the S. Z. Sakall's shopowner. His silent-film pratfalls are never commented on or given much focus, and so manage to perfectly weave into the fabric of the rest of the drama. Though he barely speaks except to apologize, several of the most important plot points turn upon him, a nice nod to his legacy as the brilliant fool of the silver screen.

This adaptation is also set apart for me by the realistic progression of the characters from idealism to realism.

For at the beginning, it's clear that both of the main characters have fallen in love with a fantasy. Both believe they are connecting with another rare, poetic soul. They write of Browning and Emerson to one another, and speak of metaphors and feelings more than details of their daily lives.

Mr. Larkin believes that she won't be impressed by his salesman position because of her lofty ideas.

Ms. Fisher believes he will be the picture of the brooding, Byronic soul. "Tall, dark . . . and handsome, and sort of sad."

Both are in for a shock. Or rather, one is.

For in real life, they see each other every day at the shop where they work. They met under unfortunate circumstances . . . and she then maneuvers her way into a position at his place of work, against his will. They quickly become selling-floor rivals. They do nothing but argue and insult one another.

So, when Mr. Larkin discovers that Ms. Fisher is his secret correspondent, he melts down slightly.

She goes home, despondent at having been stood-up (she believes) by her One True Love.

He goes home and tries to decide whether he is in Love or Hate.

And this is where the film really picks up . . . as Mr. Larkin tries to decide whether or not Ms. Fisher is worthy of the lofty ideals he had of her, and whether or not she would care for him IRL, and whether or not she deserves to know the truth. (How Sanjeev Kumar does this role, sound? I mean, really.)

Along the way, she starts to kind-of-sort-of really fall for this fellow she hates . . . a fact which is further complicated by her belief that he is seeing someone else . . . and the fact that Mr. Larkin is seriously messing with her, to try to figure her out her true feelings. (Gosh, this sounds so Austen now that I type it out.)

I'll come back to my conclusions about this film in a bit, after I introduce the second half of the double feature.

For the New Year (otherwise known as Soviet Christmas), I give you Carnival Night (1956) . . . Карнавальная ночь (1956). 

The plot's a relatively simple one. These two lovebirds (and their comrades) want to put on the BEST New Year's celebration ever!

They've totally got it in the bag, too . . .

Until this "delightful" Comrade (in a hilarious performance by comedian Igor Ilinsky), decides to butt in and change everything. Suddenly, their beautiful evening of fairy tales and music has turned into a three hour speech.

Of course, the youngsters aren't going down without a fight. Only, since this is Soviet Russia, no one will know that they are fighting back until it's too late.

I know I say this a lot, but this is a good one. (Despite the clowns you may or may not see in forthcoming screencaps.) Here are the why's and how's and wherefore's of it's goodness:

The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath,
is apparently the MUST see of
Russian New Year celebrations even now.
I am planning  to finish it on New Years,
and then perhaps I'll tell you what I think ;)
It's from 1976 so it fits rather nicely in
my chosen decade. 
(А) It's the first solo cinematic product from the man who was to become Russia's most popular director for decades, Eldar Ryazanov. Imagine if one out of every three of Capra's films were given the cultural currency in the U.S. of It's A Wonderful Life, and then multiply that success and degree of iconography by three or four, and then you might have the impact of Ryazanov's filmography on Russians to this day.

(Б) Tongue-in-cheek finger pointing at the Soviet bureaucracy and censorship practices doesn't get much funnier (or heartwarming) than this. Forget Ninotchka, this is communist comedy at its finest.

(В) It's got great performances and acts and songs, all with the added benefit of being mostly plot driven and characterization-centric. (Mostly you just want the young folks to WIN and get their perfect night.) If you don't watch this movie, you must AT LEAST watch this lovely song that marks the beginning of the New Year.

(Г) It's perfect for New Year--and there aren't enough good New Year movies--or at least few that I have any kind of holiday sentimentality for. This film is an instant nostalgia packet . . . and perfect for sprinkling over any cold(ish) evening's tea and muffins.

It's just my favorite Soviet film on my journey so far, out of the dozen I've seen. Mostly, that's just because this is such a toasty, firelit, witty romp of a film . . . and I can't imagine anyone disliking it (except for maybe Stalin, and he was dead by the time this was filmed . . . otherwise it would have never seen the light of day).

I mean, can you dislike THIS look?

And this look?

The earnestness! The mischievous plans! The reddish gold tint over everything! (I know, I love it so much, and have been told that it is a weird thing to notice, much less seek out).

And in a moment of comparison between my two holiday films, I think something bears mentioning. I couldn't help but think about the two patriarchal figures of the films. Yes, both films center on young couples trying to go about their business . . . literally. The workplace is central to the romance, to the problems, and to the resolve. But in both cases, we see patriarchal figures with the job of "interfering" with young people's plans/lives.

In Carnival Night, the patriarchal figure is a problem to be solved--someone who must be catered too and fooled if good times are to be had. His backstory is non-existent, he is a symbol to be de-pedestaled, and a comedic foil (and quite rightly so).

In The Good Old Summertime, S.Z.'s shop-owner is set up in a similar way. An older, sillier fellow, who might need to be fooled in order to gain a happy ending. But in the end, he fools everyone, and shows himself to be as kind as the young folks he once bothered. In the first, the man with the say-so is obviously the problem--and his ridiculousness is the point--it's the goal--and his humiliation is healing and cathartic. In the second, although the patriarch is of course ridiculous, the lovers are just as ridiculous. And of course, here the goal is the realization that everyone is a mix of ideals and flaws and foibles (how democratic . . .).

Sure, these differences obviously represent the distinctly contrasting objects of social satire . . . the political aims behind the filmmakers, etc. etc. But I think both satirical objects and corresponding moral-of-the-stories are good to keep in mind around the Holidays.

Not every annoying, ridiculous family member is out to get one. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. But sometimes one also just has to show-up that ONE person (you know who I'm talking about) who can't quite manage to be civilized or to curb their boorishness.

Depending on the situation, I shall count on these films to be my guide. (Or just my catharsis after the fact!)

Merry Christmas and Holidays and New Year from Filmi~Contrast!


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