The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

After falling in love with two other major works in the Alec Guinness canon of post-War comedies for Ealing Studios, I was not at all prepared for the wholesome, crowd-pleasing sentiments of The Lavender Hill Mob. Whereas The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts & Coronets are viciously acerbic—if not outright sadistic—in their densely written wit, The Lavender Hill Mob is light-on-its feet, effervescent. It’s not my favorite film of the trio, but it’s certainly the most streamlined, and maybe the one with the biggest laughs in its final payoff. While I was shocked to find it so bubbly & sweet, I was not surprised to learn that it was the most popular of Guinness’s works for Ealing, even earning an Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.

Guinness stars as an absurdly bland, milquetoast man who’s assigned to supervise the transport of freshly-minted gold bars from the refinery to the bank. Perceived to have no ambition or imagination by anyone around him (and maybe not even himself), Guinness deduces that he’s perfectly suited to steal the gold from under the bank’s nose, undetected. More of an adorable doofus than a criminal mastermind, the mild-mannered nothing of a man must navigate a world of crime beyond his limited comprehension. We watch him bumble through assembling a crew of thieves and then smuggling the stolen gold as novelty Eiffel Tower-shaped souvenirs, increasingly charmed with his buffoonish naivete at every step. Of course, his scheme eventually blows up in his face in a spectacularly farcical fashion; that’s to be expected. What caught me off-guard was how much he genuinely falls in love with both thievery itself and his small crew of fellow criminals. While The Ladykillers & Kind Hearts are deeply misanthropic works about greed & exploitation, The Lavender Hill Mob is a wholesome goof-em-around where the only true villains are the asshole cops who spoil the criminals’ fun.

I assume this was a highly influential work that just happened to slip past my radar until now. It’s difficult to imagine wryly funny heist comedies like A Fish Called Wanda or Soderbergh’s Ocean’s series existing in their current form without Lavender Hill paving the way. It’s a very simple, straight-to-the-point comedy in a lot of ways, but it manages to pack in many distinguishing details in under 80 minutes of runtime: a spiral staircase chase scene that rivals the visual trickery of Hitchock’s finest illusions; an all-timer of a gag that tricks a cop into oinking like a pig for the audience’s amusement; a single-scene walk-on role for a pre-fame Audrey Hepburn, billed simply as “Chiquita”, etc. The vicious misanthropy of Kind Hearts & Ladykillers speaks more directly to my own sensibilities, but I totally get this one’s broader appeal and I very much believe it to be worthy of their company.

-Brandon Ledet

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

The icy 1940s murder comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the funniest pieces of comedic writing to ever reach the screen. It just also happens to be one of the driest pieces of comedic writing to ever reach the screen, going down like a tall glass of cold sand. The closest the film comes to approaching the over-the-top slapstick antics we’ve come to expect from comedic filmmaking as a medium is a proto-Klumps gimmick in which British stage legend Alec Guinness plays several broad archetype characters of the same family throughout the film – a vaudevillian artform that later made a mint for actors like Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry, and (maybe closer to Guinness’s pedigree) Peter Sellers. Everything else is emotionally distant cruelty and callous bitchiness penned by a serial killer mutation of Oscar Wilde. That’s not a comedic tone that’s going to resonate with every viewer, but when it hits the right target it kills.

Dennis Price stars as the callous son of a disgraced noblewoman in the early 1900s. Bitter that he was raised in poverty because his mother married for love instead of land & title, our fey anti-hero schemes to reclaim his rightful place among landed wealthy gentry. He expedites his path back to this birthright like Jet Li in the nü-metal sci-fi thriller The One: murdering everyone ahead of him in line for his familial inheritance of a proper title. The humor of this selfish, greedy mission is in how these absurdly genteel murders are arranged to look like accidents, while our POV serial killer protagonist treats the deaths like domestic chores. The way he looks for “good” news in the Obituaries section of the paper and treats a diagram of his family tree like a hit list is outrageously cold & distanced. This is the kind of movie where the announcement of a murder investigation is described by the police as “a matter of some delicacy.” It’s also narrated as an after-the-fact epistolary memoir, underlining just how much of the humor is rooted in its post-Wilde writing style.

Alec Guinness does make an impression as the killer’s rotating cast of dipshit wealthy family members, whom the audience perversely want to see dead as well. His most popular collaboration with producer Michael Balcon—The Ladykillers—is a much more traditionally humorous farce, however, where his performance(s) is allowed to be more memorably pronounced. If anything, Guinness’s multiple personae in the doomed family line here only underline the multiple personae Price’s sociopathic killer tries on to gain access to the wealthy spaces his victims occupy. Guinness’s wealthy dolts don’t even turn out to be the killer’s ultimate nemesis; that honor belongs to a childhood “love” who shares his ruthless pursuit of money (just with shrewd choices in marriage partners, not murder).

Maybe the key to loving this movie’s frozen, impossibly dry heart lies in sharing that central vice of money envy – so that you get a perverse thrill from watching a working class fop murder his way into a more . . . comfortable living. More likely, it probably just takes an appreciation for the flippantly cruel way that thirst for wealth is written on the page, as that’s where Kind Hearts and Coronets‘s most exquisite artistry & outrageously funny zingers lie.

-Brandon Ledet

A Christmas Carol Five Ways

EPSON MFP image

For this holiday, I decided to watch five different versions of A Christmas Carol. Despite the anti-semitic subtext (the main character is a stingy money lender with a big nose, and the name Ebenezer, who finds the meaning of Christmas), it’s a story that 173 years later still feels relevant: a ruthless, old rich man who hates Christmas being scared into human decency.

I’m going to give an overview here in chronological order along with my choice for favorite ghost.

Scrooge (1951)

This is the version considered to be the best classic. It’s easy to write it off as just a straightforward telling of the book, but there’s a lot of stylistic fun. The ghosts have some cool fadings in and out, the lighting and atmosphere are spooky, and this film seems to have set the rules for how A Christmas Carol movies should look and feel. Not to mention the iconic way they present Tiny Tim’s famous line.

Alastair Sim is a really great Scrooge. He plays both sides of the character’s nature well: the detestable penny pincher and the pitiful old man. Not to mention that he makes a bunch of fantastic faces. His ending transformation is absolutely manic and almost more terrifying than how he starts out.

Favorite Ghost: I think the Ghost of Christmas Past here is actually really cool. In a lot of ways, I think this is the hardest ghost to get right, which is a shame because it’s the one that usually gets the most screen time.  I like this guy’s Greek robes. He’s soft spoken yet authoritative, which I guess makes sense, since the past speaks for itself.

Scrooge (1970)

I was really surprised with how much I really enjoyed this one. It might be my second favorite and I’m considering adding it to the household tradition watch list. It’s very solidly British, with very solidly British humor. It’s a musical, and one of the first songs you hear is “I Hate People.” If you’re not sold after that number, I don’t know what to tell you. But if you make it through enjoying nothing else, it gets really ’70s weird near the end, with a trippy scene where Scrooge actually goes to Hell.

Albert Finney is by far the grubbiest Scrooge. There’s a few close-ups of his very grimy hands with dirt under the finger nails. Scrooge’s house reflects that and  is the most convincing Scrooge house. It’s this elaborate mansion, but Scrooge is so stingy that he only uses a small, filthy section of it. The rest is cobwebs and decay.

Favorite Ghost: Jacob Marley is my favorite ghost in this one. He’s played by Alec Guinness (hey, he plays a ghost at least twice in his career), who pantomimes ghostly floating by bobbing up and down. Second place to the Ghost of Christmas Past for having a really great hat!

Scrooged (1988)

This take on A Christmas Carol is very different. If you’re not already familiar with it, it’s about Bill Murray who is a television executive. He’s ruthless and bizarre. As he’s producing a live TV version of A Christmas Carol, he gets visited by the three ghosts (I guess four if you count Marley) who are just as updated and bizarre. It’s the very cynical Network-esque take on the story.

Bill Murray is great as a rich asshole. He’s exactly the kind of rich asshole a modern audience knows about. The boss who will fire someone for bringing up reasonable concerns and will ignore when a single mom needs to take her child to the doctor.  As a Scrooge type character he’s half as old but twice as mean, and despite the surreal world that surrounds him, he’s quite believable, which in a lot of ways makes him seem like he’s past redemption. Luckily the ghosts are ruthless and sadistic.

Favorite Ghost: It’s really hard to say no to Carol Kane as bubbly fairy punching Bill Murray in the face, but I actually really like the take on Christmas Yet to Come here. Its entrance, just appearing, looming on the television monitors, is just so creepy and amazing.

A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

This version is my personal favorite and has been since childhood, and despite the presence of The Muppets, it’s actually really close to the book. There are many, many lines lifted straight from the page. I’m kind of a big Jim Henson/muppets fan in general (which you may remember from my article about The Dark Crystal), but I think what really gets me about this movie are those Paul Williams melodies. I don’t really think it’s Christmas without them (especially since my other favorite Christmas movies is Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, another Henson production with more of Williams’s music). This movie came out after Jim Henson died and was directed by his son, but all the other muppet players are there: Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, and Steve Whitmire (who now voices Kermit after Henson’s death).

Gonzo is Charles Dickens here and narrates the whole thing with the help of Rizzo the Rat. Following that pair’s misadventures through the story keeps the muppet whimsicality throughout the whole movie. Not to mention the appearances by other notable muppet characters like the Swedish Chef or Sam the Eagle. Michael Caine as Scrooge delivers the “they better do it and decrease the surplus population” line with so much darkness and grit, but at the same time has such good chemistry with his furry castmates. As I’ve said already that this is my favorite version of the story, he’s also who I think of as Scrooge.   Also at the end, he busts out some of the most awkward moves I think I’ve seen a grown man do, and in his night gown to boot!

Favorite Ghost: I’m going to have to go with Marley here. Except in this version they created a second Marley, Robert Marley. These two Marleys are played by Statler and Waldorf, who are known for being the hecklers. They get a pretty good musical number complete with singing money chests.

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009)

Out of all the versions I watched, this was the most mediocre and also the most frightening. It’s a Robert Zemeckis animated feature done in a very similar style to Polar Express, which means uncanny semi-realistic people, but beautiful backgrounds. There are so many adaptations of this work, though, that I don’t think I really understand why this one was even necessary, since it’s very close to the book and other than some impressive animation it’s pretty unremarkable. Nor do I understand why a family movie has a couple unnecessary jump scares. Despite the jump scares and creepy animated people, it just seems to drag on.  There’s so many scenes of Scrooge getting dragged along and knocked about all of them screaming, “We released this in 3D!”. It gets so old so quickly. There’s also some really bizarre and troubling imagery worked throughout. Jacob Marley’s jaw gets detached. The Ghost of Christmas Past goes through a freaky face morphing thing. A woman gets snatched away by a straight jacket. It’s just very dark. I wasn’t especially impressed with Jim Carrey as Scrooge, either. Albeit, this was animated, so I’m going off the voice acting for the most part, despite the film using motion capture heavily in it’s animation.

Favorite Ghost: I didn’t think they were interesting at all, but I guess I’ll go with Marley again, but only because he’s a grotesque, decaying corpse.

Interestingly, 3 of the 5 titles are some variation on Scrooge. All of them are agreed on what the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come looks like, 4 out of 5 have similar ideas of the Ghost of Christmas Present, but none of them can agree on what the Ghost of Christmas Past looks like.

-Alli Hobbs