Six Of The Rest

In a spirit of pre-seasonal humbuggery (which is almost certainly a real word), screenwriter and fan of the site Ben Shillito winkles out six neglected gems from a genre of his own devising – the “winter warmer”.

This article was meant to start with a quote.  You probably know it, the one about autumn being the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness and all that homely, faux-pastoral, mythologizing crap.  It’s by a poet, definitely an English one, almost certainly Keats, or possibly Byron.  Or Yeats.  Or Shelley.  Maybe Pam Ayres.  Anyway, I can’t quite remember the line, and I clearly can’t remember the author, and even though I’m writing this on a laptop which is at this very second connected to the internet, I can’t be bothered to look it up.  You may think, from your lofty perch of casual website-enjoyer, that this failure to research betokens a certain laziness on my part, but as this is my first outing as a film journalist, I thought I had better conform to the expected standards of the profession.

Laziness is a defining characteristic of a worrying percentage of people who write professionally about film, and there can hardly be a more concrete example of this than the Guardian newspaper’s recent Top 175 Film of All Time Ever, which grouped a bunch of good films into seven loosely-defined genres, then took the top film of each genre and ran them against each other in an exciting final to pick the best film ever.  Ultimately, these exercises, which crop up almost constantly in film publications, are reductive, repetitive, and frankly dull.  Because we all know that Chinatown is a damn good crime film, and Psycho is a good horror.  We know that Annie Hall is funnier than Scary Movie, and Brief Encounter more romantic than Point Break (actually, bad example, but never mind).  If reading the Guardian’s Top 175 films made you seek out a few films you hadn’t seen then good, and I hope you enjoyed them, but my aim in this column is not to celebrate the films you already know are good, but to highlight a few of the less well-known gems, the unconsidered trifles and guilty pleasures of cinema, and to say that while these films are not the best of their type, they shouldn’t be overlooked just because they don’t usually make it on to the lists.

Taking a cue from the Guardian, I will be grouping these lists by genre, and taking a further cue from the Top 175, my genres will be randomly selected, unreliable, and subject to some rather unique interpretations.  As it is November, it’s cold, and the cinemas are full of worthy Oscar-bait, I have decided to start with a genre I call “winter warmers”, the kind of films which are to be enjoyed with a hot mug of cocoa and a toasty warm pair of socks, watched in the arms of your beloved, under a blanket, while Autumn turns ineluctably into Winter outside the fastly-latched double-glazing.  Yes, people, we’re in Capra country.

Charade

1963, Stanley Donen

While far from obscure, this charming screwball romp, which pits the never-more-elfin Audrey Hepburn against the never-less-trustworthy Cary Grant in a knockabout caper packed with thugs, trains and stamp collecting, has never really attained the acclaim it deserves, either as a crime film or a comic caper.  At times it comes off like a romantic subplot excised from Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (which, like Charade, has lately become a fixture in the afternoon programming of certain unregarded digital TV channels), and at others it feels like The Pink Panther as imagined by the dryer elements of the Monty Python team, but its good-natured killings, suave bastards and twinkly-eyed wickedness make for a delicious tonic on a chill Autumn eve.

Mister Deeds Goes to Town

1936, Frank Capra

Maybe not the Capra you were expecting, and of course It’s a Wonderful Life is the superior film, but this isn’t the time for superior films, it’s the time for films you haven’t seen, and unless you’re a Capra fan, a 30s historian or a Gary Cooper completist, it’s highly likely that this one will have passed you by.  Maybe you’ve seen the (immeasurably inferior) Adam Sandler remake, but that’s not your fault.  You can make up for it now by getting hold of this delightfully cynical little film about cynicism being, y’know, a bad thing, and watch it while wearing a warm jumper in the arms of your similarly-attired girlfriend.  (Gay men and heterosexual females may make their own arrangements.)

The Man Who Came to Dinner

1942, William Keighley

Like many of the finest heart-warmers, this is a film packed full of spite, invective and sparkling insults, many of the best delivered by an on-form Bette Davis and the foghorn-voiced Monty Woolley (with Ann Sheridan and Jimmy Durante making notable contributions).  It’s a simple story, which wears its stage-bound roots on its sleeve, telling of the invasion of a nice middle-class household by an irascible celebrity and his retinue of weak-chinned assistants.  At first the Sheldons are delighted to have the renowned Sheridan Whitesides staying with them, but after he is injured, and the selfish and increasingly bad-tempered man takes over their home, and their lives, they become trapped in his world of snipe, and snark, and gloriously bantery dialogue.  A highly-recommended film, but the ending is so sweet you’d be advised to brush with tartar control toothpaste for a few days after viewing.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

1954, Stanley Donen

Donen having two entries on this list should not be taken as a blanket endorsement of the man’s work (he also made Blame it on Rio and the Pete n’ Dud version of Bedazzled), but here the esteemed director of On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain and Funny Face is at the peak of his hoofin’ and hollerin’ powers.  Jane Powell is as sassy and sweet as Howard Keel’s mountain-man trapper deserves, and his misguided attempts to pair up his six uncouth brothers with six of his new wife’s well-bred young friends provides two solid hours of Technicolor joy.  And for my money, any film which features the phrases “MGM’s Love-Making Musical” and the peerless “in Gayest Color!” on the same poster deserves a watch.

The Christmas Gift

1986, Michael Pressman

Yes, for the purposes of the exercise, TV-movies count.  You won’t get to see any of these films on the big screen any time soon, so why be picky about where they started life?  And besides, this film has John Denver in it. Country music superstar, contact-lens-decliner and tragically poor pilot, John mother-flippin’ Denver!  In this fresh and steaming bucket of schmaltz, Denver’s George Billings is a simple architect, who takes his buck-toothed little daughter Alex with him to the quaint small town which his company are planning to ruin with an unsympathetic ski-resort development.  Despite the fact that Alex is a weepy, emotionally unstable little creature, George blithely permits her to go on reindeer-sleigh rides, and to befriend the locals (all of whom have names like Buck, and Hank, and Clara, and who probably sh*t apple pies), while working on his nefarious plans.  Ultimately of course, the big confrontation scene rolls around, and the brat runs off and attempts to die in the snow to teach Daddy a lesson, then when they reconcile and she demands that he abandon the billion-dollar development as a Christmas gift to her, the fool gives in to her demands, rather than, say, thumping her around the back of the head.  Which is what you or I would do.  I hope I’ve made it plain that this film is syrupy, damp, cloying and stupid.  But it’s also utterly brilliant, and it could very well make you cry.

Ping Pong

2002, Fumihiko Sori

This film is very hard to summarise.  It won a bunch of awards, it’s quite short, and very Japanese, and if you have a soul, it will touch it.  High-school friends (and potential professional table-tennis players) Peco and Smile hang out, play table-tennis, talk about girls a bit, fall out, make up, grow up and go their separate ways, all played out in the shadow of a big and apparently very important ping-pong tournament.  One of the teams has brought in a ringer from China, which gives rise to some wonderful racist jokes which just don’t translate, but it’s bloody marvellous and has a character who keeps trying to kill himself because of parental ping-pong pressure.  All of which is played for laughs.  Watch it.  You’ll love it.

So there you have it.  Six films you probably haven’t seen, any one of which could get you seriously cuddled on the sofa on a cold November evening.  Next month, because it’s Christmas, I’ll be picking out six ghost films guaranteed to cause maximum seasonal creepage.

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