Monday, November 11, 2013

Movie Monday: The Thanksgiving Movie Edition

Last Friday, I wrote about how Black Friday seems to be getting more attention this year than Thanksgiving Day in the media. And I stand by that statement.

Which is why I decided to devote Movie Monday this week to films in which Thanksgiving Day plays a significant role. I've probably highlighted all of these films around here before, but this is a good time to do so again.

There certainly aren't as many Thanksgiving movies as there are Christmas movies, but in looking around and doing some research, I found more than I had imagined I would. I haven't seen most of those movies, so I thought I'd focus on a few that I have seen. Not all of them are movies that you probably really associate with Thanksgiving.

The first of those is "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947, and the several remakes). That's a Christmas movie, right? All about Kris Kringle and whether the Jolly Old Elf is real or not. Well, yeah. On the other hand, the action revolves around the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, a drunk Santa, another Santa who isn't thrilled with his instructions to entice customers to do all their Christmas shopping at Macy's, the second Santa's claims to be the real Santa Claus, and the near-universal parental dilemma over what to tell their children about Santa's reality or lack thereof.

This movie, which has become a classic, stars Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, and a young Natalie Wood. It is one of the few holiday classics that I can stand to watch. Some of the reasons include that the scenes in the film of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade were actually filmed during the 1946 parade and that the scenes in Macy's were actually shot on location in the Macy's flagship store on 34th Street in New York City. These facts tickle the history geek in me. Other trivia about the film includes the fact that this was Thelma Ritter's screen debut.

It is also fascinating to me that although this is a holiday film, it was released in May because 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was convinced that more people go to the movies in the summer than during the holidays. Because of the time of year the film was released, there was a great deal of effort expended to hide the fact that it was a holiday movie ahead of its release. This trailer, from 1947, shows the lengths that the studio went to, to keep the theme of the film a secret:

And here is a short scene from the film:

Another film that doesn't really scan at first glance as a Thanksgiving film is the 1978 documentary "The Last Waltz", which was The Band's final concert before their breakup in 1976. What makes it a Thanksgiving film? Well, it was filmed on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976. Other than that, it probably really isn't a Thanksgiving film in the strictest sense of the term. However, it's a really good film, one of Martin Scorsese's music documentaries, and I like it a lot. I'll take any opportunity I can to share a bit of it. This is the clip I always think of when I think of this film:

But, there are Thanksgiving movies that really are about Thanksgiving and all the angst that Thanksgiving dinner means in some families. The one that captures this the best, I think, is "Home for the Holidays" (1995), starring Holly Hunter, Anne Bancroft, Robert Downey, Jr., Dylan McDermott, Claire Danes and Charles Durning, and directed by Jodie Foster. Holly Hunter plays a woman going back home for Thanksgiving at a bad time in her life. She's just been fired, her teenage daughter has decided that she would rather spend the holiday with her boyfriend's family - and not only that, she's planning on having sex with him. "Safely" - and her family is about as dysfunctional as families get. Add to that, her brother brings home a friend for dinner than none of the family has ever met before. Here's the trailer:

Seriously. See "Home for the Holidays". It's a good movie - and it will make your own dysfunctional family seem absolutely normal and sane by comparison.

And then there's "Alice's Restaurant" (1969), the film version of Arlo Guthrie's famous (and famously long) song of the same name, which tells the story of the Thanksgiving he got arrested for littering. The story told by the song is there, and fairly reliably translated (and mostly true), and Arlo plays himself. More drama, more fictional, is added into the mix, but it remains a good movie. If you know the song, you probably want to know that Officer Obie is played by William Obanhein, the real Officer Obie. If you're a fan of folk music, you might also want to know that Lee Hays, bass singer with The Weavers, and Pete Seeger play themselves.

As this clip shows, "Alice's Restaurant" the movie preserves as its centerpiece "Alice's Restaurant" the song. There's much more here, and this is only part of the song. Really. The movie is very Sixties, but it's also very good at being what it is:

So, in the next couple of weeks, in the run-up to Thanksgiving Day, take a couple of hours out of your busy schedule and see a Thanksgiving movie. You know, before the onslaught of Christmas movies takes over the airwaves and the cable channels.

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