Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 45
Updated: Feb 8
Part 45: 1948
Miracle on 34th Street
The Bishop's Wife (hidden gem)
Gentleman's Agreement (winner)
Miracle on 34th Street
Every year at Christmas, my siblings and I would receive a beautiful letter from Santa Claus. It would detail all the amazing things we did that year and was artistically decorated in illustrations that looked eerily similar to my dad’s (😉). It would sit amongst the cookie crumbs and half-eaten carrots that we left out for the reindeer. I know I speak for my brother and my sister when I say that we looked forward to that letter each and every year.
My dad made it near impossible for us to not believe in Santa. He went so far as to create glitter-covered footprints that led from our front door to the stockings. We had jingle bells on every door – year-round – calling back to the message from one of his favorite books, The Polar Express: only those who believe can hear the jingle bells ring.
Today, I yearn for that magic I felt at Christmas. After my dad died, it became harder and harder to hear the jingle of the bells, so to speak. Even as an adult, a part of me wakes up every Christmas, waiting for that letter, wanting – so desperately – to believe again.
In Miracle on 34th Street, Susan (Natalie Wood) has the opposite problem. Raised by a single mother named Doris (Maureen O’Hara), Susan does not believe in Santa Claus. More so, she knows he’s not real. Doris has raised her daughter to be practical and free of frivolous beliefs. Why disappoint her further when she learns the truth?
However, things change when Doris crosses paths with a man who goes by the name Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn). Sporting a real, white beard and a well-worn red suit, Kris truly believes he is the one and only Santa Claus.
Working as a mall Santa at Macy's, Kris not only promises to deliver children the gifts they ask for (much to their parents’ disapproval), he also speaks several languages, including Dutch. While many believe there’s something special about him, few are willing to admit that he’s actually Santa.
Of course, the only way to prove anything in an American film is to take it to court. Doris’s neighbor, Fred Gailey (John Payne) acts as Kris’s counsel and embarks on the near impossible task of proving that Kris is Santa. Kris also embarks on his own task of trying to convince little Susan that he’s the real deal – but she’s not biting. Unless he can bring her the one thing on her Christmas list, Kris is no more than a nice man with a white beard.
I can’t make the claim that Miracle on 34th Street is my favorite Christmas movie, nor one that I’ll watch as often as I do White Christmas, but it still perfectly encapsulates the holiday season. It goes beyond the question of whether Santa Claus is real by proving the reality of the Christmas spirit. Does a fat man shimmy down each and every chimney in the entire freaking world over the course of 6 to 8 hours carrying millions of tons of gifts on a sleigh barely big enough for him? Miracle on 34th Street doesn’t aim to answer that. Instead, it uses the lessons of Santa Claus to help prove his existence. You can find the goodness in the world – if you just believe.
Shadows fight on the wall. A lamp shatters, covering the scene in darkness. Feet shuffle out of the room and a body lay still on the floor. Someone has been murdered, but why? And who dunnit?
That’s the question homicide captain Finlay (Robert Young) seeks to answer at the beginning of Crossfire. Traveling in a cloud of pipe smoke (not unlike Pig-Pen from Charlie Brown), Finlay surveys the scene, which doesn’t offer much in the way of evidence.
His first lead comes by accident – Monty Montgomery (Robert Ryan) knocks on the door of the crime scene, looking for his friend, Samuels (Sam Levene). But the old Samuels can’t come to the door right now. Why? Because he’s dead.
As Finlay and Monty talk, a series of flashbacks reveal what happened the night of the murder. Four army buddies – Leroy (William Phipps), Floyd (Steve Brodie), Mitchell (George Cooper) and Monty – visit a bar while on leave. They strike up a conversation with Samuels and his girlfriend, then all leave for a nightcap at Samuels’ apartment.
Feeling sad and lonely, Mitchell leaves the party first. As he closes the door, we hear Monty utter the phrase, “Jew Boy” when talking to Samuels, establishing Monty as an anti-Sematic right from the start.
Now, any true crime junkie will tell you – criminals almost always return to the scene of the crime – so Finlay is at once suspicious of Monty. Things get even curiouser when Floyd also goes missing.
As if there weren’t enough people involved already, Finlay brings in Sergeant Peter Keeley (Robert Mitchum) to act as a bit of a character witness for the soldiers involved. Keeley knows his men – better still, he knows who has motive to kill. Sadly, the sole motive is one America has known all too well in her history: bigotry.
In this classic noir film, the murderer is not meant to be secretive. The real suspense comes from the entrapment. How does Finlay prove someone committed a hate crime with little to no evidence? The ending gives a good, if not foreseeable, twist and is proper payoff for the short 90-minute investment.
The weakness of Crossfire is that the killer is capable of not only killing Samuels, but other non-Jews as well – diminishing the bias rage of the initial murder. Crossfire wants us to believe that Samuels died because he was Jewish – which might very well be the case – but the bigger reasoning is that the killer is just a deranged psychopath who is just as willing to kill a Jew as he is his best friend, or anyone who crosses him the wrong way.
This is not quite the problem of the film and more the problem of the production code, which wouldn’t allow Crossfire any more anti-Semitism than what it showed. The story is actually based on a novel, which dealt with a homosexual man being beaten to death by his fellow marines. There was no way Hollywood would allow a film about homosexuality to pass the sensors, though the film would have been much better if it did.
Hatred certainly is a loaded gun, and Crossfire does a good job of trying to show how bigotry has been a part of not only American history, but human history. The movie almost wants to go further, to say something about racism and xenophobia, but it is a victim of a semi-racist Hollywood. Caught in a bit of a crossfire itself, this film comes out victorious, but badly bruised.
The Bishop’s Wife
Come December, our TVs are visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, a long list of holiday films that warm our hearts and souls with the warmth and spirit of the season.
For many of us, these movies were already relics when we first saw them. When I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life, for example, it was already almost 50 years old. It seemed to be a simpler time, the era of these early Christmases, and watching these holiday treasures with our own families has become a beloved tradition.
And hidden at the back of the tree, lost among a bundle of Zuzu’s petals, miracles on the streets of New York, and visions of snow-covered Vermont ski hills, is an overlooked classic that’s worth adding to the Nice List this Christmas.
The Bishop’s Wife begins like many Christmas films, with the streets abuzz with the excitement of the holiday season. Children crowd the sidewalks watching toy displays in store windows as snow rests softly on their little pink noses. A well-dressed man stands behind the children, almost as amazed as they are.
From the moment we see Dudley (Cary Grant), we know he is a force for good. Before landing at the toy display, he helps a blind man cross the street. He saves a baby from rolling into traffic. We’re not sure why, but there’s something special about this man.
Elsewhere in this unnamed town, a bishop named Henry (David Niven) is struggling to raise four million dollars to build a grand cathedral for his perish. Overwhelmed with the task at hand, he ignores his young wife Julia (Loretta Young) and daughter, as well as the approaching Christmas season. He prays for guidance and is more than shocked when one dapperly-dressed Dudley arrives at his door, ready to answer his prayer.
Like any wonderful holiday film, The Bishop’s Wife contains one magical sequence after another. In one scene, Dudley and Julia go ice-skating at a local park (though he didn’t do the intense stunts, Cary Grant was actually a good skater!). In another, he decorates a tree with the wave of his hand. But one of my favorite scenes involves Dudley teaching Julia’s young daughter how to clobber a bully with a snowball.
Though similar in theme to It’s a Wonderful Life, released the year before, The Bishop’s Wife doesn’t have a heavy pounding lesson of humanity. Wrapped up in a neat holiday package, The Bishop’s Wife is more about human frailty and the humble rewards that come with doing the right thing. In this film, none of the characters quite get what he or she wants, which gives it a sense of realism that is often lacking in holiday films. We leave with a feeling that these characters will soldier on, even after we’re done watching them. As the credits role, we come to learn that the bishop, his wife, and even their angel, may not have gotten the guidance they wanted from each other but, rather, the guidance they needed…and that is the greatest Christmas miracle of all.
In 1962, Gregory Peck uttered those infamous lines forever tied with Atticus Finch: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.” But about 15 years before he starred in To Kill a Mockingbird, Gregory Peck climbed into the skin of a Jewish man in order to better understand anti-Semitism in the often forgotten Oscar winner, Gentleman’s Agreement.
California journalist Philip Green (Peck) has been tasked with a challenging assignment: a story about anti-Semitism. The topic itself isn’t the challenging part – the struggle comes with how to take on such a well-trod subject. In post-war New York, it’s not hard to find someone who has anti-Semitic thoughts. As the movie states, “…even the Jews hate the Jews.”
Eventually he stumbles upon his million dollar idea: Philip will pose as a Jew for 6 months and soak up all the anti-Semitic abuse a man named Philip Green who looks and sounds like Gregory Peck can take. He will then write his ground-breaking story under the captivating headline, “I Was a Jew for Six Months!”.
As a newcomer to New York, virtually no one knows his true identity: save his mother, his son, Tommy (Dean Stockwell), and his girlfriend, Kathy (Dorothy Maguire). To the rest of the world, he’s just “Philip the Mensch”, a pretty, well-dressed boy who loves bringing up the fact that he’s Jewish in everyday conversations, just to see what happens. He tries to apply for club memberships, hotel bookings and jobs, all with his edited Jewish persona.
Unlike the civil rights movement still to come, there were no official bans on Jews entering swanky hotels or applying for jobs, just a nod and a wink and a “gentleman’s agreement” among conservative-minded WASP gentiles that they all know the sort of people they want around. It’s the sort of everyday prejudice that Groucho Marx tried to knock back with his joke about not wanting to join a club that would have him as a member.
In fact, the whole premise seems comical – like something Mel Brooks or Larry David would dominate. But, of course, Gentleman’s Agreement takes itself very seriously. During his “study”, Phil finds nasty little incidents of anti-Semitism all around him – from his doorman objecting to him putting a Jewish name on his letterbox (he changed his last name to “Greenberg”) to being rejected a room at a nice hotel. Even young Tommy is bullied in school when the kids find out that his father is a Jew.
But the worst comes when Kathy shows concern that Phil is actually becoming “Jewish”. His immersion in his new Jewish identity – a kind of method-acting approach – has Kathy uneasy about how her extended family and high-class social circle will react to her dating a Jewish man. But here’s the kicker – Judaism and Jewishness are almost entirely absent from this movie. There’s no culture, no synagogue, no history. No iconography, no imagery, no representation of the actual Jewish community. The closest we get is an Albert Einstein-looking professor who talks about Zionism and the Palestinian homeland. It’s pitiful to say the least.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the Holocaust. It is not mentioned, despite having ended just 2 years before this movie came out. Phil struggles to talk to Tommy about anti-Semitism, staying it’s like a kind of religious prejudice, like anti-Catholicism, and doesn’t even mention the atrocities of World War II, which Tommy would have surely learned about with a journalist father.
However, Gentleman’s Agreement certainly succeeded in at least starting a conversation. Do you support this toxic treatment, or do you remain silent and, therefore, complacent? Do you fight for a more just world or do you sit back and hide in the one that exists now? Though it still doesn’t have the balls of Get Out or Sorry to Bother You, it still gets one message across very clearly: once you see how intolerance acts, you can’t go back. You can look away, you can even close your eyes to it, but it will always be there.
Like most classic period films, success comes in having low expectations. While Great Expectations is certainly one of those film adaptations that is better than the book (at least, in my opinion), it’s still far from great.
Philip “Pip” Pirrip (Anthony Wager) is a young orphan under the care of his ornery older sister and her blacksmith husband. While visiting the graves of his parents, Pip is grabbed by a ruthless convict named Magwitch (Finlay Currie). Though scared, Pip is kind to Magwitch, bringing him food and drink.
Magwitch is eventually re-captured and sent away to prison. Pip is also sent away to a prison of sorts – a neighbor named Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) has summoned Pip to her massive estate to come play with her adopted daughter, Estella (Jean Simmons).
Confined in her mansion for years, Miss Havisham is essentially in a state of arrested development. Jilted on her wedding day, she has spent her entire adult life in bitter resentment. All of the clocks in her house have stopped at the moment when she discovered that her fiancée had betrayed her. Still wearing her wedding dress, the ancient Miss Havisham lives in a house that time forgot. Cobwebs adorn every wall. The long table is still set for a wedding feast. Even the wedding cake, now covered in mold and dust, is nothing but a feast for the mice. The atmosphere of her mansion, and its deranged occupant, was no doubt an inspiration for Sunset Boulevard, which hit the screens 4 years later.
And poor Estella is just an instrument for Miss Havisham’s continued resentment. Raised to “break men’s hearts”, Estella is cruel to Pip, despite his near immediate feelings of love towards her.
Years pass and Pip, now a grown man (now played by John Mills) is summoned to London by a lawyer named Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan). Jaggers represents a secret benefactor who has selected Pip for “great expectations” and now wants to fund Pip’s education and training in London, where he will learn to become a proper English gentleman.
Pip suspects that it might be Miss Havisham who’s financing his education and that he is being groomed to eventually marry Estella (now played by Valerie Hobson); however, things aren’t quite what they seem.
Directed by David Lean, Great Expectations features amazing cinematography. He captures compelling landscapes, grand gothic buildings, and rooms that range from sparse to psychotic. The first time we see Miss Havisham’s room, for example, it’s like something out of a Hitchcock thriller. When we follow young Pip into the graveyard in the eerily quiet opening scene, the trees become shadow monsters that heighten every hair on the body.
Like other gothic stories of the time (Rebecca, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sunset Boulevard), Great Expectations gives us a haunting story of broken people trying to find a place in the world. At times its tragic, especially in the home of Miss Havisham – and at other times, it’s rather corny, like when the story shifts to that of the dimwitted and loyal blacksmith. And right in the middle of this story is Pip, a boy who starts off with nothing, becomes a man who gets everything, yet never loses sight of his joy (at least, in the movie version!). As Pip learns to navigate these two vastly different worlds, and how to process his childhood experiences, he learns what it really takes to be a gentleman.
Miracle on 34th Street
Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing (Motion Picture Story), Best Writing (Screenplay)
Other Nominations: Best Picture
Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm), Best Director (Elia Kazan), Best Picture
Other Nominations: Best Actor (Gregory Peck), Best Actress (Dorothy McGuire), Best Supporting Actress (Anne Revere), Best Writing (Screenplay)
The Bishop's Wife
Wins: Best Sound Recording
Other Nominations: Best Director (Henry Koster), Best Film Editing, Best Musical Score, Best Picture
Wins: Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White)
Other Nominations: Best Director (David Lean), Best Film Editing, Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Picture
Wins: No wins.
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Robert Ryan), Best Supporting Actress (Gloria Grahame), Best Director (Edward Dmytryk), Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Picture