Sunday, December 25, 2016

Wishing You a Merry Val Lewton Christmas

It's hard, slaving over a hot keyboard during the holidays--Christmas isn't a time for brandishing Activist causes, it's the season for peaceful classic-movie-watching on earth, and goodwill to studios, even to crazy, neurotic, spin-doctoring, Blu-ray-genocidal studios that banish every old classic movie to their MOD Archive like Mad King Ludwig.
I just wanted to find a nice sentimental Christmas-movie cause to stick up for.  I was feeling too good to bring up my old nails-on-chalkboard grudge about people who have never seen Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby in 1942's "Holiday Inn" because they think Crosby sang "White Christmas" only in the corny fading-studio 50's-G.I. Danny Kaye/Rosemary Clooney movie where, like, it's in the title, and it's Technicolor...Next year, definitely.  (Although with the stage show on Broadway for the season, maybe a few movie-illiterate folk will have heard of it now.)
It was too much work to do a post sticking up in defense of 1985's "Santa Claus: the Movie", in praise of the Alexander Salkind days when big-budget movies spent their money making big REAL soundstage-and-matte sets of Santa's workshop...
And I didn't see any point in digging up the already Internet-beaten fan debate about whether the first 1988 "Die Hard" (back when Bruce Willis played hip "regular guys", and still had hair and an actual working sense of humor) is a, quote, "Christmas movie", since to my mind, there is no debate:  It is.

But, with the smells of a fresh ham roasting in the slow-cooker, I decided to take it easy on the column this week, and save my holiday time for putting my feet up with the old Blu-rays and vintage DVD's.
And one that I always reserve for Christmas--or at least always tell people I do, just to see the look on their faces--is the heartwarming family holiday warmth of Robert Wise's The Curse of the Cat People (1944), from the director of "The Sound of Music".
Okay, cue the people saying "The What of the Who?"  And thereby hangs a tale to send you to the library's video section.  (Or to Mad King Ludwig's dungeon of the Warner Archive.)

To explain why, to the uninitiated, goes back to Jacques Tourneur's original Cat People from 1942:  In the story (later remade into overbearingly pretentious and point-missing kinkiness by Paul Schrader and Natassja Kinski in 1982), our hero Kent Smith meets mysterious foreign Irena, played by Simone Simon...But she tries to avoid marriage, claiming her ancestors were under an ancient were-panther curse.  Smith humors her "delusions" but when he turns to attractive co-worker Alice Moore to get Irena some help, Moore discovers--in one of the most film-school studied scenes in horror movie history--that jealousy has claws.

The creepy, atmospheric B/W thriller became a huge hit for RKO, and, like many a studio today, the studio now thought they had a franchise.  Every Hollywood studio hoped for a new "horror" line, now that Universal had broken the supernatural envelope with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and RKO thought they had a new horrormeister in producer Val Lewton.  The chief moguls at RKO pitched one cool Horror-Sounding Title after another at Lewton, hoping lightning could strike as many times as they wanted, starting with a sequel to their big studio hit.
But here's where kicks in what could be called "Val Lewton pranks RKO":  Lewton was a producer of eerie atmosphere, B/W shadows and lurking fears left to the imagination, and he didn't want to do lurid studio Universal-envy monsters...So, he found a way of sabotaging them by making stories in own style, and justifying the titles so the boss didn't complain.  When RKO threw "The Leopard Man" at him, he delivered the story of a circus performer who owns a leopard (which escapes into a sleepy border town), and when they pitched "I Walked With a Zombie", Lewton put George Romero aside to deliver a romantic potboiler set against Jamaican voodoo--"Jane Eyre in the Caribbean", unquote.
Lewton had been hoping to move on to "Amy & Her Friend", a heartwarming family picture about a little girl and her imagination.  But, when RKO's moguls pitched the "next hit followup, 'Curse of the Cat People'", Smith, Moore, Simon, and Lewton-regular Calypso singer Sir Lancelot had all been contracted.  So, Lewton simply changed the names, inserted his usual strategic justification-line in the script ("Ever since his first wife, it feels like there's been a curse on this house...") and the hit Cat People sequel was now the heartwarming story of Amy and her Friend for parents and children alike.

In the now-altered "sequel", Kent Smith is married to Alice Moore, after Simon met her end (or did she?) in the first film.  He's too busy with his job designing boats than to look after his shy young daughter Amy (played by a realistically sullen Ann Carter), who's misunderstood by the other kids at school and retreats into her overactive imagination.  In fact, whereas most dads might play along with their little girl's fantasy lives, Smith frustratedly seems to rage at Amy's pretend view of the world--"She's just like Irena was, believing things that aren't true!"...There, see how we got more of the "sequel" into the script?
Amy's only friends seem to be a reclusive grandmotherly ex-actress in the mysterious house nearby (and whose colorful senility about the past seems charming at first, but soon develops a dark Lewtonian edge, like seeing Norma Desmond played by Angela Lansbury), and Amy's claims of a beautiful princess in white who's become her "imaginary friend".  From child-perspective, we don't see Amy's friend onscreen at first, until she sees an old photo of Simone, and says "'But that's her!  You know my friend, too!"'
How could she have known, Smith wonders?  Hehehh...But since the story is mostly from Amy's fantasy POV, we're never allowed to know just quite how imaginary her "imaginary" friend might actually be.  
(As I described the story to one newbie, "Imagine if Val Lewton had remade 'My Neighbor Totoro', and turned it into a spooky B/W 40's RKO film."  Complete with a Totoro-style climax where Amy's parents search for her in a Christmas blizzard, and things still take an eerie, even if family-friendly, Lewton turn...)

Which brings us to our scene, for Season's Movie-Activist Greetings:  
As the parents welcome their upper-middle-class upstate-NY friends in on Christmas Eve for a caroling party, Amy lives the bane of all our neglected childhoods...The Grownups' Party.  
Until Irena (or is it Amy's imagination?) comes to the rescue:

Yeah.  Like the spooky hot French imaginary might-be-ghost babe says:  Merry Christmas.

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