'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...
At which point, Sylvester the cat looks up from his long fruitless vigil outside the mouse hole in the baseboard and sighs with feeling to the narrator, "You're not jutht whithlin' Dickthie, brother."
"Gift Wrapped" is like every Looney Tune or Merry Melody - a mere six minutes long. But with Christmas movies that's a good thing. The western and the musical may be dead, but the charmless Xmas movie is now a genre all of its own and doing gangbusters. Do they teach it in film school? In fact, it's really two genres: there are intentionally charmless Christmas movies like Bad Santa 2, and then the accidentally charmless ones, like that Ben Affleck flick where he's some heartless yuppie who rents a bluecollar family for the holiday season so he can enjoy the authentic down-home Yule he's never known. In such pictures, the great American Christmas, once the ne plus ultra of e pluribus unum, appears on celluloid an utterly exhausted seam.
So, besieged my such horrors, I thought I'd retreat to short-form holiday entertainment, or alternatively short-form holiday entertainment within long-form non-holiday fare. Any thirty seconds of "Gift Wrapped", for example, is more rewarding than all three-and-a-half hours of Bad Santa 5 or whatever it is: six minutes of pure Looney Tunes pleasure in which Sylvester determines to land the only Christmas present he really wants — Tweety. The film opens with Granny slumbering upstairs and the impatient cat sneakily unwrapping his gift. It's a rubber mouse and he's not happy about it. "Why couldn't I get thumthin' practical?" he complains. "Like a real mouse."
Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett get most of the plaudits for Looney Tunes, but I love the relentlessness of Friz Freleng's work. He's not as well known as Jones, mainly because half the sub-editors at papers and publishing houses insist on correcting his name to "Fritz Freling". Not so: Friz, short for, er, Isadore. Freling's masterpiece is "High-Diving Hare", in which a high-dive act fails to show up and Yosemite Sam demands Bugs Bunny take his place. No matter how often Sam forces Bugs up the ladder and on to the diving board, somehow it's always Sam who ends up plunging off and into the tub of water, or in the general vicinity thereof. I especially enjoy the bit where Bugs forgets to refill the tub and so throws the water over the edge after Sam's halfway down. The sequence where Sam is falling through the air trying to force the liquid to go down faster so he'll have something to land in is a masterpiece of comic ingenuity and timing, albeit disastrous for the diminutive dastard.
Likewise, Freling's "Canary Row", in which Sylvester the puddy tat, disguised as a hotel bellhop, snaffles Tweety's covered cage down from Granny's room and into the back alley, only to find that it's not Tweety but the l'il ol' lady waiting under the cover to thwack him: Granny hunched up in the bird cage with her umbrella drawn is one of the all-time great sight gags. The Tweety & Sylvester series demonstrates Freleng's inexhaustible ability to ring wildly inventive variations on the same old theme. In "Gift Wrapped", the formula's pared to its essence: Sylvester uses the gifts under the tree — bow-and-arrow, train set, etc. — to ensnare Granny's "darling little Tweety bird". He lurks at the top of the stairs, lowers down the winch of the toy crane to lift Tweety's cage but instead hooks Granny and by the time she's yanked up to the landing she's not happy about it. The moment when, dressed as Pocahontas, she fires the toilet plunger at Sylvester is especially memorable.
After the Looney Tunes golden age, Freleng did the distinctive titles sequence for Blake Edwards's The Pink Panther, with the eponymous cat cavorting to Henry Mancini's music. Peter Sellers stole the movie and made it into a personal franchise, the bottom of which barrel Edwards managed to scrape successfully for well over a decade after Sellers's death, assembling lame sequel after lame sequel out of cutting-floor footage and grim derivatives such as Inspector Clouseau Jr, played by Roberto Benigni. But as the years go by I find myself returning to The Pink Panther for everything but Sellers: David Niven, Robert Wagner, Capucine, the Mancini music. It's not a Christmas film but one scene has the whiff of eggnog about it, and is, I think, the best après-ski scene ever made. It starts with a horse-drawn sleigh pulling up at the lodge, and we cross inside to the revelers round the fire as the music begins and Edwards closes in on an attractively curvaceous black ski-panted bottom swaying to the Continental rhythms. The bottom — a classic jut-butt (as Bob Hope used to say of Doris Day) — belongs to Fran Jeffries and, as she turns, you appreciate that the rest of her's not bad either. (She looks better in the movie than Claudia Cardinale, whom Edwards photographs rather harshly.) Miss Jeffries was one of those Sixties chicks who did a couple of movies and a couple of albums (Fran Can Really Hang You Up The Most is up there with A Whole Lalo Schiffrin Going On as one of my all-time favorite LP titles). But this is her shining hour, all three minutes of it, superbly staged by Hermes Pan (Fred Astaire's choreographer) as she sings, in Italian, "Meglio Stasera" and Niven, Wagner and the arhythmically grooving Sellers hang on her every word.
Back in the Sixties, almost every film had a song of some kind but few lavished the amount of attention Edwards does on this one: it wraps up an entire world and an era in one scene. Wherever I went on winter vacations, I always hoped to find a ski-lodge where Fran Jeffries was singing "Meglio Stasera". The closest I came was a visit to her daughter's restaurant in Los Angeles. (Not sure whether she still owns it, but it's the restaurant you see in Julia Roberts's Pretty Woman.) Miss Jeffries died two Christmases ago, and, if what followed The Pink Panther never quite live up to the "And Introducing..." billing Edwards gives her here, the introduction is pretty spectacular.
The other great Sixties ski-lodge belongs to Blofeld in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, where Bond is operating under cover as the bekilted Sir Hilary Bray from the Royal College of Arms. Among the covers he's operating under are those of the young ladies of the establishment. They're not as exotic totty as we're used to in Bond films — Ruby Bartlett from Morecambe Bay (endearingly rendered by Angela Scoular) is the most persistent — but George Lazenby's 007 does his best to give satisfaction. At the pre-Christmas party, you'll see an entire cavalcade of swingin' London dolly birds — Anouska Hempel, Julie Ege, Jenny Hanley, Joanna Lumley. Roger Moore's ski-slope chases are more famous, but Lazenby's attempt to outrun Blofeld's men crackles with real tension. Did you know it's the only Bond film with a Yuletide number? Written by John Barry and Hal David: "Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?" As it happens, I do know how Christmas trees are grown, because I live in northern New Hampshire. But mine's not the answer Barry & David have in mind. It was sung by Nina van Pallandt, who was the Danish blonde half of Nina & Frederick, the latter being a Dutch baron. They were quite a couple in the Sixties, but then they separated and he took up with a Filipina gal, moved to her country, became a drug runner for an Aussie syndicate, and got shot dead when some big deal went south.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the first ever post-Connery 007 caper, is a uniquely sober Bond film, at least until Casino Royale four decades later. It has a tragic ending, which the most recent Daniel Craig picture seems to be building up to a remake of. George Lazenby turned down a seven-picture contract, because he reckoned the whole hippie thing would kill the Bond franchise stone dead by the mid-Seventies. Aside from the poor business judgment, he, like Timothy Dalton, doesn't quite seem to have the size of the character. So the somber downbeat finale suits him in a way that it wouldn't have Roger Moore. On the other hand, it makes you all the more grateful for the Christmas totty scenes.
For less glamorous Yuletide escapades, you can't beat the silents. The great theme of Hollywood's early Christmas movies is the seasonal burglary, sometimes perpetrated by ne'er-do-wells, sometimes merely by desperate societal victims too poor to spend Christmas. The best of these is D W Griffith's gloomy A Trap for Santa (1909), in which a wife and children abandoned by the unemployed alcoholic man of the house are eventually reunited when she comes into money and he attempts to burgle the joint on Christmas Eve.
Synopsized that tersely, it could almost pass for a Bad Santa sequel-too-far or a high-concept Ben Affleck project. But so do a lot of the dimestore Dickens flickers. Santa Claus vs Cupid (1915) sounds great in summary: the girl has two beaus, Beck and Levin ...whoops, sorry, I mean Beck and Norwood; she seems to prefer Beck, so Norwood hatches a plan to substitute for the other fellow as Santa at the Christmas party. That's a cracking premise: two suitors, with two Santa suits; complications ensue. But in practice it all gets bogged down in a plot about a coachman with a sick wife who burgles all the toys. The time is ripe for a Santa Claus vs Cupid remake that does justice to the title.
~For Mark's own take on Sylvester and Tweety (via Sting and The Police) please see here.
Steyn will be back later this evening for the concluding installment of our festive Tale for Our Time - Holmes and Watson in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. Tales for Our Time and much of our other content is made possible through the support of members of The Mark Steyn Club, for which we are profoundly grateful. Club membership isn't for everybody, but it helps keep our content out there for everybody, in print, audio, video, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Saturday movie dates. And we're proud to say that this site now offers more free content than ever before in our sixteen-year history.
What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, aside from an audio Book of the Month Club and a video poetry circle, it's also a discussion group of lively people on the great questions of our time (the latest airs this Tuesday), and a live music club (get your kicks on Route 66 here, and enjoy some more live Bobby Troup songs here). We don't (yet) have a clubhouse, but we do have many other benefits, and the opportunity to sail with us on our forthcoming second Mark Steyn cruise. And, if you've got some kith or kin who might like the sound of all that and more, we also have a specially festive Gift Membership with a handsome Tales for Our Time bonus that makes a great Christmas present. More details here.