I’m Streaming a Black & White Christmas

Rick at Radio Station 3

 

This holiday season, for anyone who needs a break from the fruitcake, or any of their other relatives, you can hide in the den and enjoy a movie.

To many nowadays, movies filmed in glorious black and white are somewhat of a culture shock. But before you succumb to the barrage of modern holiday films filled with saccharine sentiment, estranged families, reconciliations, and dysfunctional Santas, or one of the two-dozen (but who’s counting) TV-movie versions of “A Christmas Carol,” test drive some classics.

Here are two of my favorite films that take place during Christmas but can easily be enjoyed at any time of the year. They have my prerequisites for great comedy movies: lively-paced, diversely eccentric characters, and wonderfully-written dialogue; dialogue that I can listen to over and over again, like my favorite tracks on comedy CDs.

The Man Who Came To Dinner is the 1942 film version of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s brilliantly witty 1939 play. The story begins shortly before Christmas. Sheridan Whiteside, an acerbic critic and radio commentator, accepts an invitation to dinner at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley while he is passing through a small town in Ohio during a lecture tour.   After slipping on ice on their doorstep and claiming to have dislocated his hip, he becomes a disagreeable and demanding houseguest. Since he is temporarily confined to a wheelchair, he takes over the first-floor, coercing his hosts by threatening to sue them.

 With the exception of his assistant, Maggie, Whiteside manipulates everyone around him. He does, however, meddle in Maggie’s love life when she becomes smitten with a local newspaperman and wants to leave her job and get married. That’s when the chicanery kicks into high gear and chaos, as they say, ensues.

Kaufman and Hart modeled the character of Whiteside after their friend, the renowned drama critic and radio personality Alexander Woollcott. Whiteside is an outrageous character, a comic caricature of Woollcott’s traits, especially his scathing wit, and boorish behavior as a houseguest.

One day Woollcott showed up, unannounced, at Hart’s Pennsylvania estate and proceeded to take over the house. He slept in the master bedroom, terrorized Hart’s staff, and generally acted like Sheridan Whiteside. When he left, he wrote Hart a note: “This is to certify that I had one of the most unpleasant times I ever spent.” When Hart was relating the story to Kaufman later, he told him that he felt lucky that Woollcott had not broken his leg and become stuck there. At which point they had a mutual “Aha !!” moment and ran to their typewriters.

 The printed edition of the play starts with the inscription “To Alexander Woollcott, for reasons that are nobody’s business.”

 Like a roman à clef novel, there are several other characters modeled after well-known personalities, most notably that of Banjo, played by Jimmy Durante.   Banjo was modeled after Harpo Marx.

Woollcott’s ecstatic review of the Marx Brothers’ Broadway debut, the 1924 musical comedy revue “I’ll Say She Is,” helped re-launch their career after vaudeville and he became a life-long friend of the siblings. He also encouraged them to use their now iconic nicknames publicly.

There is a reference in the original play to Groucho and Chico. When Whiteside talks to Banjo on the phone, he asks him, “How are Wacko and Sloppo?”

The 1934 film The Thin Man is a comic masterpiece based on the mystery novel by Dashiell Hammett, which the aforementioned Alexander Woollcott praised it as “the best detective story yet written in America.”

 While Nick Charles, a retired private detective, and his wife Nora, a wealthy heiress, are spending the Christmas holidays in New York City, primarily to avoid spending them with Nora’s family on the West Coast, they become embroiled in a missing person’s case. But the mystery of “who dunnit” is not relevant to the movie’s appeal.

 What makes the film so entertaining and enduring is one of the most perfect screen matches in Hollywood history: William Powell and Myrna Loy.

William Powell was the screen’s most polished light comedian. Roger Ebert said that “Powell is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance.”

Myrna Loy was a uniquely talented screen comedienne who could do more with a raised eyebrow and knowing look in her eye than many actresses could do with a hundred-page script.

They first appeared together in the 1934 crime film “Manhattan Melodrama,” which holds a special place in actual crime history because John Dillinger was gunned down at the Biograph Theatre in Chicago after seeing the film. He was purportedly a big fan of Loy and he was tempted out of hiding to see her on the screen.

The relationship of Nora and Nick Charles is one that redefined the screen depiction of marriage. They blended sophisticated charm, subtle wit and affection.   Nick and Nora were the first couple who showed how much fun marriage can actually be. They radiated not only a romantic and sexual attraction, but also made it clear that they were the very best of friends:

 Nora: Take care of yourself

Nick:   Why, sure I will.

Nora:   Don’t say it like that! Say it as if you meant it!

Nick:   Well, I do believe the little woman cares.

Nora:   I don’t care! It’s just that I’m used to you, that’s all.

The interplay between the two comes off as so natural that many movie fans thought they actually were married.   Powell once said that “Even my best friends never fail to tell me that the smartest thing I ever did was to marry Myrna Loy on the screen.

During their careers, they made 14 films together, including 5 sequels to “The Thin Man,” and the on-screen chemistry between the pair, who often improvised on the set, was key to the success of that series.

The “freshness” and naturalness of the performances is even more amazing considering it was directed by Woody Van Dyke, known as “one-shot Woody.” He always worked at a frantic pace, and part of the reason that “The Thin Man” moves so quickly is the fact that the production was so hurried.

Powell’s first appearance in the film is in a bar where he is showing the bartenders how to make the perfect martini. Van Dyke told him to take the cocktail shaker, go to the bar and just walk through the scene while the crew checked lights and sound. Powell did it, throwing in some improv of his own. Suddenly Van Dyke yelled, “That’s it! Print it!” The director had shot the scene without Powell knowing it so that he’d be as relaxed and natural as possible.

The film’s Oscar-nominated script was written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich , themselves married for over 50 years. They also wrote the screenplay for the Christmas classic “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

Some of the clever dialogue was borderline censorable at the time, as the Motion Picture Production Code was just starting to be seriously enforced in 1934. To wit, reading the newspaper accounts of his being shot while apprehending a hoodlum:

Nick:   I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.

Nora:   I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids.

Nick:   It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.

So give yourself the gift of laughter and meet some remarkable characters of the silver screen. As Nora says to Nick after meeting a motley group of his old cronies from his P.I. days, including thugs, cops, punch-drunk fighters, “loose” women, and ex-cons:   “Oh, Nicky, you know such lovely people.”

 

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Danny Thomas

Rick at Radio Station 3

 

I’ve done a lot of stand-up, and my favorite shows have always been fundraising events. I enjoy doing something with my comedy to help others, and the audiences are always so enthusiastic. People always make more of an effort to get off the couch, put on pants, and go out for a worthy cause.

The comedy community has a long history of donating their time and talents to those who need it most.

Comedian and television host Ellen DeGeneres supports numerous organizations, such as the Ellen for the Cure campaign, which has raised millions of dollars for Susan G. Komen For The Cure. After Hurricane Katrina devastated her hometown of New Orleans, Ellen raised over 10 million dollars to help residents get back on their feet.

Comedian and actor Denis Leary created the Leary Firefighters Foundation after six firefighters in his hometown of Worcester, MA were killed in a warehouse fire. The organization provides funding for fire departments so they can acquire necessary equipment, technology, and training

After the attacks of 9/11, the foundation established The Fund for New York’s Bravest to raise money for the families of the 343 firefighters who perished in the line of duty.

Beginning in 1941 and continuing for half a century, comedian Bob Hope headlined USO tours, bringing the gift of laughter to U.S. military men and women around the world.

Of the 144 episodes of his radio program aired during World War II, only nine originated from NBC’s studios. The others all took place at military bases.

In 1943, Hope, with a group of entertainers known as the Hope Gypsies, toured England, Italy and North Africa with the USO. “The European theater,” Hope said, “was a little like vaudeville with foxholes.”

Hope made an appearance in a training film “Welcome to Britain,” starring Burgess Meredith, which explained English customs to newly arriving American GIs. Meredith wrote that “the most wonderful thing about England right now is Bob Hope. There isn’t a hospital ward that he hasn’t dropped into and given a show; there isn’t a unit anywhere that isn’t either talking about his jokes or anticipating them. What a gift laughter is!”

A big thrill for Hope on that trip was meeting Winston Churchill at Ten Downing Street. Hope later admitted that, when left alone in the prime minister’s study, he stole some of his stationery.

The Gypsies shows never bombed, but occasionally they had bombs dropped near them. In Palermo, they had a narrow escape with their lives when 100 Nazi Luftwaffe planes dive-bombed the harbor, destroying the area around the troupe’s hotel a few blocks away.

John Steinbeck, working as a war correspondent, traveled in two cities with the Gypsies. He wrote, “Probably the most difficult, thing of all, is to be funny in a hospital. Bob Hope and company must come into this quiet, lonesome place and bring laughter up out of the black water. It hurts many of the men to laugh, hurts the knitting bones, strains at sutured incisions, and yet the laughter is a great medicine.”

A bizarre example of how much Hope was respected for his work with the USO was revealed in an interview with a kidnapper. In 1963, Frank Sinatra Jr. was abducted by Barry Keenan and held for ransom.  In a 1998 interview in The Washington Post, Keenan, said: “I originally thought of Tony Hope (Bob’s son), but Bob Hope had been very active with entertaining the troops and seemed like an all-around good guy. Kidnapping Tony didn’t seem like a very American thing to do.”

 Hope continued to entertain US troops for almost 50 years after World War II. He and his wife Dolores spent many of their Christmases with the troops.

In 1997, Bob Hope was designated an honorary veteran by Congress for his humanitarian services to the U.S. Armed Forces. He is the only individual in history to have earned this honor.

One of my favorite stories of faith, generosity, and humanitarianism is that of Danny Thomas and St. Jude Hospital.

In 1937, 25-year-old Danny Thomas was not having much success in in show business. Although he worked hard in nightclubs and on the radio, he wasn’t getting anywhere in his career. He wondered if his dreams were hopeless. In addition, he and his wife, Rose, were about to have their first baby (Marlo) and he didn’t have enough money to pay the hospital bill. So he went to church to pray for guidance.   He prayed to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, asking “Please give me a sign to help me find my way in life; just a sign that I’m going in the right direction, and someday I’ll build a shrine in your name.” Then, with only $10 in his pocket, Danny put $7 in the collection basket, and said to St. Jude that he needed10 times that amount to pay for the hospital bill. The next day, he was offered a job playing a singing toothbrush in a radio commercial. The pay was $75.  He took this as a sign that he was indeed on the right path with his career.

Shortly after, a Hollywood agent, who had heard about this talented young comedian, came to Chicago to see him and ended up taking him back to Hollywood where Danny eventually became a very successful comedian, singer, and actor.   And he did not forget his promise to St. Jude.

In the early 1950s, he and Rose began traveling the United States to help raise funds to build a hospital for the research and treatment of catastrophic childhood diseases.

Danny had once read a newspaper article about a young African-American boy in Mississippi who was struck by a car, and because no nearby emergency room would take a black child, he died. He carried the clipping of that story in his wallet for many years.

When he asked his friend and lifelong spiritual advisor, Cardinal Stritch, for help with his endeavor, Danny showed the Cardinal the clipping he had been carrying in his wallet and said, “I want to put my hospital in the South.” The Cardinal, a native of Tennessee, advised him to locate the hospital in Memphis.

Believing that “no child should die in the dawn of life,” Danny Thomas, with help from Dr. Lemuel Diggs and Anthony Abraham, opened the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1962.

Since then, St. Jude has treated children from 70 countries. The hospital cares for about 7,800 patients per year, absorbing all expenses that insurance doesn’t cover. Families never receive a bill, and St. Jude also assists them with travel, food and lodging.

At this time of the year, when people think that celebrating Christmas involves a month-long orgy of shopping, beginning with Black Friday’s pre-dawn Grand Guignol spectacle of “A Mall and the Night Visitors,” give some thought about what this holiday was supposed to be about.

The gift that keeps on giving is the gift of giving.

Remember whose birthday you’re supposed to be celebrating, and what He might like to receive.  No, not a gift card to “Frankincense, Myrrh, and Beyond.”

I think He would prefer peace on earth; compassion to those in need.  You know, the same thing He asked for last year.