Kool Kat of the Week: Director Philip Gelatt Gets Lost in the Weird Woods and Scores a Cosmic Horror Hit with THEY REMAIN at the Plaza Theatre

Posted on: Mar 7th, 2018 By:

Director/Screenwriter Philip Gelatt.

Indie horror movies typically don’t get theatrical runs, but THEY REMAIN (2018), opening at the Plaza Theatre on Friday March 9 at 9:30 p.m., is that rarer bird in that it’s arriving with some serious critical buzz from media outlets as The Daily Beast and The New York Times. It’s based on the novella –30– by Laird Barron, an author at the head of the pack of a mounting Weird literary movement that’s been steadily creeping onto the little and big screens from TRUE DETECTIVE to ANNIHILATION (2018, in theaters now), adapted from the best-selling novel by Jeff VanderMeer. And even its leads, really its two characters, are risk-taking—a black man (William Jackson Harper of  THE GOOD PLACE TV series) and a woman (Rebecca Henderson, APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR [2014] ).

The plot is simple and increasingly unsettling. Keith and Jessica, who once were romantically involved,  are assigned to investigate some strange animal behavior on land which once was the stomping ground of a Manson-style family cult. Isolated together in a compound reminiscent of PHASE IV (1974)—yes, there’s some eerie insect action, too—their sanity seems to be increasingly on edge. A festival circuit hit, THEY REMAIN premiered at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon last October to a packed house and thunderous applause.

We caught up with THEY REMAIN Director/Screenwriter Philip Gelatt, no stranger to intelligent Sci-Fi Weird with the film EUROPA REPORT (2013) also under his belt, to find out more.

ATLRetro: What’s the secret origin story behind THEY REMAIN? Why did you want to adapt -30- and how did the project get off the ground?

Philip Gelatt: The secret origin story is basically that at the time I optioned the story, I was coming off the back of a string of failed screenplays. Things I’d written for producers who then just abandoned the projects and generally treated both the material and my work on it with a kind of Hollywood-ish disrespect. So I was feeling a bit pissed off, I guess. Both at screenwriting as a pursuit and craft, and at the industry as a whole.

So I went looking for something that I could do that would let me break all of my most hated rules of screenwriting. I also wanted something that fit my intrinsic tastes, which are a bit esoteric and cantankerous. -30- fit that bill perfectly. It’s a Weird story and a weird story. It’s elliptical and ambiguous and difficult, in the best way. I read the story a few times, just to be sure that I really wanted to try to tackle it. Then I sent it over to the producers who had worked with me on my first feature,THE BLEEDING HOUSE (2011). They read it and immediately saw the potential in it. And things just moved from there.

William Jackson Harper in THEY REMAIN (2018).

What were your greatest challenges in getting THEY REMAIN to the screen? Fundraising is always difficult for filmmakers, but was it harder raising funding for a Weird horror film?

We had myriad challenges, as almost all films of any level do. And yeah, fundraising was one of them. We sent the script out to various financiers, almost all of them passed. The typical story, y’know. In that process, we got responses that asked for the script to be changed in order to fit a more standard horror film. But to do that would have been to remove the very things that make it special and those notes didn’t come with a guarantee of financing. I was lucky in that the lead producers on the film had a bit of money; we were hoping we could get the budget up higher by bringing outside financiers on, but, in the end, we weren’t able to and we had to shoot with what we knew we had.

Can you talk a little about casting the film and working with William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson? 

Absolutely. I don’t like the auditioning process. I find it awkward and un-useful. It feels like you’re bringing actors in and putting them in front of a firing squad and I hate that.  So, instead, I had prospective actors read the script and then I brought them in to have a conversation about the material and the characters. Ultimately, what I was looking for was people that had strongly engaged with the script, people who had ideas about the story, and people with whom I thought I could collaborate closely.

Filmmaking, despite what auteur theory might lead a person to think, really is all about choosing the right collaborators. Especially on this budget level. You need people you get along with and people who will challenge you and people who are dedicated to the film. Auditioning won’t let you see if an actor can be those things.

We cast both Will and Rebecca through that process. I then made the rather bold—and potentially stupid—decision to not really rehearse prior to shooting. My thinking was basically that by dropping the actors in on day one and just going, it would put them in the same mindset as the characters. Rehearsals would have given them a chance to grow comfortable with the material and each other… I figured better to try to keep it a little more raw than that.

I can’t say enough great things about both them. They handled every weird twist of that script with absolute professionalism.

Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) leans over Keith (William Jackson Harper) in THEY REMAIN (2018)

The film’s visuals are key to building the mounting set of dread, so it works upon the audience as much as the characters. Can you talk a little about the look you wanted to achieve, connecting ambiance and lighting with mood, and cinematographer Sean Kirby, who has a strong background in documentary filmmaking?

 This is, above everything else, a film about a certain mood and tone. The idea was to place the audience in the same position as the characters, so that as the film progressed they were grappling with the same frustrations and the same growing sense of dread.

There was a running visual idea that shots should always be slightly off. Sean called it “leaving room for the other in the frame.” Often that meant framing such that the human character is minimized or off center or, occasionally, almost completely hidden.

One of my favorite moments in the film comes fairly early, it is a shot with tree in focus in the middle of frame and, in the near distance behind it, out of focus, Keith is sitting and watching. It’s a rather long shot. We never rack-focus to Keith or highlight that he’s there. But he is. That to me is the essence of the film: you’re being asked to look closer.

Sound also is integral to the effect. What instructions did you give composer Tom Keohane and how did you both collaborate?

Tom and I worked pretty closely throughout the whole process of the film beginning in pre-production. I had him read the script and the story and compose music just based on those. This was before we’d shot anything. I wanted his initial musical response to the story. And some of that music lasted all the way to the final cut. It certainly helped inform the way editing process.

In terms of the actual scoring process once the film was shot, we had pretty long conversations about what might or might not work. For a time, we were trying a sound that was almost like Vangelis’s work on Blade Runner (1982). Very science-fiction and very big.

We pursued that awhile but ended up finding that it was misleading… it made the film feel too much like it was going to end up having robots or spaceships or something. And of course, it doesn’t have those things. So we pulled back and started investigating sonic textures for interior spaces and exterior spaces, and musical themes for each of the characters in the film. So much of the film is off-screen; we thought it was important to have certain musical cues as to what unseen element might be at play in any given moment. I’m very happy with how it turned out. For those interested, Tom will be putting the soundtrack up on Bandcamp.

The domed compound in THEY REMAIN (2018).

Film and the written word are different media with different demands and strengths. The original story was set in a California desert, but you’ve re-set it to the woods—both of which can be very isolating locales. Some readers may wonder about the reason why you made this shift?  

 The basic reason we shifted it is a very boring one: budget. We knew pretty early that we weren’t going to be able to mount a production in the high desert. And we also knew that we had access to a sizable piece of land in upstate New York.

At first, I was a bit disappointed that we needed to make that change. I certainly started out picturing the story in the desert. But once I’d spent some time on the land where we were going to shoot, I got used to the idea and even started seeing some of the advantages in it in terms of color. A lot more hues and tones in the forest than the desert. And Sean and I did our damnedest to make that forest feel as strange and isolating as we possibly could.

Horror film is known for its jump-cuts and sudden scares, but THEY REMAIN’s horror is embedded in subtle unsettling moments. Do you have a favorite—or one that has been particularly gratifying to see the audience response to, without giving away too many spoilers?

 Oh I’m pretty proud of a lot of moments in the film. I’ll list a few.

There are two times in the film that Keith wakes up and finds Jessica standing next to his bed. The first time it happens is one of my favorite moments in the film. Her performance there gives me chills.

Speaking of Jessica, the careful viewer will notice that she looks directly into the camera a few times over the course of the film. It’s quick but I think, even if you don’t pick up on it consciously, you do register that something strange has just happened.

Then there are a few sound details that I love. Early in the film, there’s a moment where we cut to black. And then the sound of two knocks brings us out of the black and into a new scene. That knocking sound is, of course, the sound of knocking on the hatch, something that becomes significant later in the film.

Interwoven, ominous details like that are the thing I most wanted to play with in constructing this film.

Maybe we’re a little partial because we know artist Jeanne D’Angelo’s work, but that’s also one hell of a movie poster—leaves surrounding a voyeuristic eye. Did you make suggestions to Jeanne, or how did that evolve?

 I love Jeanne’s work so much. Like with Tom, I actually approached Jeanne before we shot the film and hired her to do a piece of concept art that featured the skull and the horn and the forest.

So when the film was completed, she seemed like the obvious person to approach about doing a poster. I don’t remember making initial suggestions to her; instead she started doing sketches with her ideas for how it might look. And eventually we settled on the leaves and the eye and subtle details.

That poster feels so much like the film to me. She did an amazing job.

How do you feel about a theatrical release? Was it always a goal, or did you think this was just going to be festival circuit to DVD/streaming—the usual fate of many indie horror films?

 It was always the goal. Sean shot the film to be seen big. And I wanted to make a movie that would benefit from the theater-going experience where viewers aren’t so tempted to check their phones or computers or get distracted. It’s a film in which you’re supposed to get lost… much easier to do that in a theater. I’m so grateful that we’re getting even a limited theatrical release.

The genuinely Weird movie is a rarity. What are a few Weird films that inspired you or are personal favorites and why?

 I have a tendency to detect The Weird in the nooks and crannies of films that might not be commonly seen that way. So, for example, I believe THE SHINING (1980) to be a Weird film. Yes, it’s a haunted house film, but the ways in which the details of the story don’t add up, the way in which it frustrates interpretation, the psychology of it… those things feel deeply Weird to me.

I think Polanski’s film THE TENANT (1976) is a Weird film in the way it plays with identity and indulges in a very unsettling sense of the surreal. There’s no cosmicism in it but Polanski does kind of construct a twisted pantheon of god-like humans who destroy his character’s life. And then there’s the matter of the hieroglyphics on the bathroom wall…

Oh and here’s another outside-the-box pick: Peter Greenaway’s THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT (1982). It’s a movie I adore… and on its face it is basically a period piece murder mystery. But there is also this living statue that haunts the edges of the frames, never really acknowledged by any of the characters.

Is there any question no one has asked you yet about THEY REMAIN that you’re surprised by or would particularly love to answer? And what is the answer?

 Hmmm… to their credit, people have avoided asking me questions like “what does the film mean?” Or “what’s real in the film?” Of course, I think it’d be really boring of me to answer those questions. Engaging with those things is part of the fun of the film. Which is my roundabout way of saying: this is the type of film that should leave you a little perplexed. My hope is that it will spark debate about just what has happened and just what it might all mean.

What’s next for you as a filmmaker?

In terms of what I’m going to direct next, I have two projects that I’m developing currently. But I’m not sure when—or even if—either one of them will come to fruition. I have been doing a good deal of screenwriting for other directors recently. Mostly science-fiction material. Nothing I’m allowed to say much about but keep your eyes peeled.

I’ve also been working on a hand-animated, rotoscoped, psychedelic, sword and sorcery fantasy film. It’s titled THE SPINE OF NIGHT. I co-directed that with the lead animator on the project, Morgan King.

We shot the live action bits of it years ago and since then a team of animators has been working hard on it. It should, finally, be completed sometime late this year. That’s one for fans of FIRE & ICE (1983), HEAVY METAL (both the magazine and the film) and old school Conan. It is a really distinctive and amazing project and I can’t wait for it to get out there.

All photos courtesy of Philip Gelatt and used with permission.

 

 

 

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ATLANTA FILM FESTIVAL PREVIEW: ONE PATH TO SPENDING YOUR WEEK AT THE MOVIES

Posted on: Mar 24th, 2017 By:

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

The Atlanta Film Festival is back, growing this year into additional venues and an absolutely packed lineup of interesting and entertaining films. ATL Retro will be at the festival all week, logging reviews of films while subsisting on a strict diet of beer and Junior Mints, because journalism matters now more than ever.

If you’re looking for some tips on what to check out during the festival, please enjoy this day-by-day selection of films that we thought might interest the retro-inclined. Of course, any preview such as this can only barely scratch the surface of what the AFF has to offer, so for a more detailed preview be sure to visit the AFF’s official website.

Friday, March 24 — Opening Night

The festival kicks off with its traditional opening night ceremonies, including a screening of Bill Watterson’s DAVE MADE A MAZE, a high-concept comedy about a man whose quest to produce something great and wonderful (presumably on a budget) leads him to construct an elaborate, DIY labyrinth inside his own home. Of course, he promptly gets trapped in his own creation, leaving his loved ones wondering how to mount to rescue (Plaza Theatre, downstairs, @ 7:00pm).

After the show, all those with tickets, as well as badge-holders, are invited to the Opening Night Party taking place at Paris on Ponce until midnight, but be sure to get your butts back to the Plaza to see Lips Down on Dixie stage their show alongside THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW(1975), a longtime Plaza tradition that the AFF has happily embraced.

Saturday, March 25

Avondale’s Towne Cinema joins the festival this year as a venue, which is where you’ll want to be to check out TRENCHES OF ROCK, a documentary about the three-decade history of the Christian metal band Bloodgood (Towne Cinema @ 2:30pm).

Jill Campbell’sMR. CHIBBStakes a look at the post-NBA career of former all-star Kenny Anderson, dealing with the fleeting high of fame and celebrity, and the plight of athletes who are faced with spending the rest of their lives in the real world, away from the bright lights of the big time. The film screens with the short film GAME, a narrative short about a kid at the other end of this basketball lifestyle, high school tryouts (Plaza Theatre, downstairs, @ 4:30).

For fans of the Atlanta horror scene, certainly the most anticipated event of the day is the long-awaited debut of SAM & MATTIE PRESENT SPRING BREAK ZOMBIE MASSACRE, featuring members of the local horror community and hosted by the immortal Professor Morte and the Silver Scream Spook Show. Sam Suchmann and Mattie Zufelt drew national attention last year with their Kickstarter campaign to fund the epic zombie movie of their dreams, and the result of that campaign is set for two screenings on Saturday, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see the gory results. (Towne Cinema @ 5:30 & 8:30)

Sunday, March 26

Sunday is likely to feature some of the most popular events of the festival week, what with the 25th Anniversary screening of the well-loved Marisa Tomei vehicle MY COUSIN VINNY hitting Plaza Theatre (12:00pm) as the movie half of the “Food on Film” program. Ticket- and badge-holders are invited to head over to the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center after the film for a celebration of grits in southern cooking, and other after-party shenanigans.

Once properly stuffed with southern cuisine, head on over to 7 Stages forMELE MURALS, a documentary about Hawaiian history and culture as seen (and expressed) through the street art of Hawaiians Estria and Prime (7 Stages @ 5:45pm).

The upstairs theatre at the Plaza suffered some damage recently, forcing a venue change for several films to the Druid Hills Presbyterian Church across the street. If you want to visit the venue, and perhaps thank them for helping the Plaza and the festival out in a tight spot, there’s a perfect opportunity when the film WOMAN ON FIRE screens on Sunday night. The film looks at the story of Brooke Guinan, New York’s first transgender firefighter (8:00pm).

But whatever you do, be sure to get back to the Plaza early enough to get a good seat for the perennially popular PUPPET SLAM, featuring local performers and riotous scenes of little felt people doing at least a few inappropriate things. Live puppetry performance combines with a few puppet-y short films for what usually works out to be one of the funnier times you can have in a theatre all week (Plaza Theatre, downstairs, @ 9:30pm).

Monday March 27

It’s doing a disservice to mention only one film happening on Monday, but in the interest of brevity in this preview, we simply had to point out that Dad’s Garage is getting in on the screening action this year, putting on a screening of SYLVIO, a typical movie full of the usual cliches: a gorilla living in a human world wants to share his favorite hand puppet with the world. You know, that old story. SYLVIO was another Kickstarter success story, and doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that’s easily missed (Dad’s Garage @ 8:00pm).

Tuesday, March 28

Fans of retro cinema will want to check out THE HERO, featuring legend Sam Elliott as an aging hero of the silver screen whose sudden illness drives him to reconnect with his estranged family. The film also stars Nick Offerman, Laura Prepon, and Krysten Ritter (Plaza Theatre, downstairs, @ 7:00pm).

Then, if you want to end your evening on an up note, swing over to 7 Stages for LEAGUE OF EXOTIQUE DANCERS, which takes viewers to Las Vegas to spend time with the aging ladies who were there for the classic era of burlesque (7 Stages @ 9:30pm).

Wednesday March 29

OK, it’s mid-week. You’ve been at this for a while. You are have part Junior Mint. Persevere! There’s so much more to see, such as THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, the new film from Niki Caro starring Jessica Chastain as a Polish zookeeper in 1939 who must put her own life at risk to save the people at risk from the Nazis after the Germans invade (Plaza Theatre, downstairs, @ 7:00pm).

After the show, skip dinner and get thee over to 7 Stages forCHERRY POP, a narrative film about the performers at a drag club having a wildly unexpected night. If that doesn’t energize you for the festival’s second half, then there may be no hope left for you (7 Stages, @ 9:15pm).

Thursday, March 30

Acclaimed director James Gray has delivered another provocative film with THE LOST CITY OF Z, the true story of the British explorer Percy Fawcett, who entered the Brazilian jungles with his eldest son in 1925 in search of “Z,” a rumored city believed to have a link to the mythical El Dorado (Plaza Theatre, downstairs, @ 7:00pm).

Friday, March 31

You’ve made it to the weekend! As a reward, enjoy a second screening of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW at midnight, but before you do, be sure to attend the screening for WAITING FOR B., a documentary about the lengths Brazilian fans of Beyonce are willing to go for a chance to inch closer to the stage (Plaza Theatre, downstairs, @ 9:30pm).

Saturday, April 1 — Closing Night

It’s April Fool’s Day, and so despite the existence of a slate of films on Sunday, tonight is considered the official Closing Night. You’ve put the time in, you’ve seen an unbelieveable number of great films, and so don’t even think about missing this year’s closing film, Joshua Z. Weinstein’s MENASHE. The film is set in New York’s Hasidic Jewish community, and follows the struggles of the title character as he looks for a way to raise his son as a single parent in the wake of his wife’s death, in spite of religious traditions. The screening will be attended by the film’s Executive Producer, Danelle Eliav (Plaza Theatre, downstairs, @ 7:30pm).

Sunday, April 2

The festival may be over, but you aren’t. No, you’re still craving the sweet sensation of new and exciting films, and Sunday has you covered. For starters, check out NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER, starring retro cinema icon Richard Gere as a lonely New Yorker looking to get ahead, who suddenly finds himself in the orbit of the new Israeli Prime Minister. The film is presented in partnership with the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (Location TBD, but likely the Druid Hills Presbyterian Church — see website for updates, @2:45pm).

And, finally, there’s THE PROMISE, featuring current Hollywood it-guy Oscar Isaac as a medical student in 1914 Constantinople who lands in the middle of a torrid romance and the political turmoil of war. Also starring Christian Bale (Plaza Theatre, downstairs, @ 7:00pm).

Conclusion

And that’s just one possible path you could take through the Atlanta Film Festival’s epic schedule. Of course, your preferences may vary, so check out the website to be sure you find the events that are right for you. From short film blocks to special presentations, there’s no shortage. Drop us a line here at ATL Retro and let us know what films you saw, and what you thought! We’ll see you there!

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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RETRO REVIEW: Splatter Cinema and the Plaza Theatre Unearth a Blood-Soaked Valentine With CEMETERY MAN!

Posted on: Feb 9th, 2014 By:

CEMETERY MAN (1994); Dir. Michele Soavi; Starring Rupert Everett, Anna Falchi and François Hadji-Lazaro; Tuesday, February 18 @ 9:30 p.m. (photos and merch table open @ 9:00 p.m.); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Bringing classic gore flicks back to life is the mission of Splatter Cinema, and this Tuesday’s engagement at the Plaza Theatre is a special one indeed: Michele Soavi’s brilliant CEMETERY MAN!

Along with his compatriot, Lamberto Bava (son of the legendary filmmaker Mario Bava), director Michele Soavi breathed a bit of life into the twitching corpse of the Italian horror renaissance kicked off by Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Both worked under Argento as assistant/second unit directors, while Soavi took on acting roles in a number of Italian horror films as well (that’s him as the metal-faced mystery guy in DEMONS and as the boyfriend forced to watch his girlfriend puke up her intestines in CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD). And while Bava’s films typically went for the blunt, straight-ahead shocks of DEMONS and gialli like DELIRIUM, Soavi typically gravitated toward the surrealistic and fantastic elements of SUSPIRIA and THE BEYOND. 1989’s THE CHURCH and 1991’s THE SECT—both made under the auspices of Dario Argento’s production—both showed the kind of promise that he held as a filmmaker, but were hindered by scripts that drew too freely from highly influential works (THE CHURCH hews closely to Argento’s SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, while THE SECT is ROSEMARY’S BABY redux).

But once out from under his mentor’s wing, Soavi soared with perhaps the last great film of the Italian new wave of horror, CEMETERY MAN (released in Italy with the much better title, DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, a pun on the main character’s name which translates as either “about death and about love” or “about the death of love”).

Francesco Dellamorte is the caretaker of the Buffalora cemetery, assisted by his mentally handicapped assistant Gnaghi, who can only speak the syllable “gna.” Dellamorte’s humdrum life consists of maintaining the grounds, crossing out the names of the dead from phone books and killing the reanimated corpses that rise after seven days of interment…all of which he undertakes with the same bored stoicism. It’s a job, after all, and shooting the zombies is easier than going through the paperwork needed to get any help. When he becomes infatuated with a young widow and Gnaghi falls for the mayor’s daughter, however, things take a turn for the worse.

Soavi’s film is full of delightfully dark comedy and the kind of atmosphere the Italian horror scene hadn’t witnessed in years, comparable to the best of Bava, Fulci and Argento. The tone and visuals not only echo the best of Italo-horror, but also the best of Terry Gilliam’s works—no surprise, as Gillaim devotee Soavi was second unit director on 1988’s THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN and reportedly shot about a quarter of that film. Rupert Everett is especially effective as Dellamorte, bringing the right amount of pathos and longing to his dour role, while still delivering believable doses of sarcasm, wit and violence. And while the film isn’t quite as graphically violent as many of its Italian zombie counterparts, its effects (by maestro Sergio Stivaletti) are expertly pulled off.

It’s a rare film that can combine detailed character study, an exploration of the joys and pain of love and romance, rollicking comedy, explosive violence and the inevitable reanimation of the dead. But CEMETERY MAN is it. If just about anyone else tried to do it, it would likely come out as pretentious and scattershot, but Michele Soavi is the man who proved it could be done and done successfully.

Unfortunately for the Italian horror film scene and its fans, Soavi retired from feature film work after CEMETERY MAN to care for his ailing son, though he took on some television work in the years following. And while rumors of a return to horror have been suggested (with news of a potential sequel to CEMETERY MAN floated over the past two years), Soavi’s resurrection remains something the faithful still anticipate with bated breath.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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A Very White Christmas in Atlanta: The Plaza Lets It Snow with Two Bing Crosby/Irving Berlin Christmas Classics

Posted on: Dec 20th, 2013 By:

HOLIDAY INN (1942); Dir. Mark Sandrich; Starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds; Friday, Dec. 20 – Wednesday, Dec 25 (visit the Plaza Theatre website for times and ticket prices); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954); Dir. Michael Curtiz; Starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen; Wednesday, Dec 25 – Tuesday, Dec 31 , in repertory with MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947) (visit the Plaza Theatre website for times and ticket prices); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

How much Bing is too much Bing? Trick question. There can’t be enough Bing this time of year. So when the Plaza Theatre offers up Der Bingle in HOLIDAY INN and WHITE CHRISTMAS—teamed with stars like Fred Astaire, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Danny Kaye and Marjorie Reynolds and built around numbers by the legendary Irving Berlin—well, it’s a Christmas present for every classic Hollywood musical lover.

In 1940, songwriter Irving Berlin came to Paramount Pictures with an idea he’d first toyed with after writing the song “Easter Parade” in 1932: a film set at an inn open only on holidays, featuring a series of different holiday-themed musical numbers. Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby—both riding high on waves of popularity—were quickly attached to the project, and filming began on November 1941. However, despite its reputation (and that the film begins and ends during the holidays), the film isn’t really a Christmas film at all. It’s the tale of a love triangle between Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby, as the retired stage performer who runs Holiday Inn), Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire, as Jim’s caddish former performing partner on a path set for stardom) and Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds, as the inn’s featured performer and Jim’s love interest, who is tempted by the future of fame and fortune promised by Ted).

Furthermore, while the song “White Christmas” is featured three times (once in the opening credits, twice in the film itself), its appearances are dictated more by the dramatic developments of the plot than to evoke memories of Christmases past or holidays longed for in the future. In fact, the song was unpopular at first (being released in the middle of summer might have had something to do with that) and was overshadowed by another song from HOLIDAY INN. “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” Crosby himself was initially indifferent to the song, simply saying “I don’t think we have any problems with that one” when first hearing it. (Irving Berlin, on the other hand, was more enthusiastic, calling out to his secretary “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written—heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!”)

By the end of October, things had changed. The song skyrocketed to the top of the “Your Hit Parade” chart where it sat until the new year dawned. It also nabbed the “Best Song” Oscar in the 1942 Academy Awards. To date, it is the best-selling single of all time. (There’s some dispute over that, however: because standard record charts weren’t in existence when Crosby’s single was released, there’s a lack of hard info on just how many copies were sold. As a result, some have claimed that Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997” holds that title at 33 million copies sold. However, Guinness World Records—after extensive examination—concluded that the single had sold 50 million copies as of 2007, thus beating out Elton.)

As a result, the film has become somewhat pigeon-holed as a Christmas staple, even though little of the film takes place during that holiday (the Fourth of July seems to take a much more prominent role, due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor plunging the country into war during the filming). What the film lacks in explicit Christmas content, though, it more than makes up in the fantastic performances of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Berlin’s music is tailor-made to be sung with the easy-going elegance of the film’s stars, and Astaire is at the top of his game during the film’s dance sequences. Marjorie Reynolds is a standout dancer and utterly convincing as the aspiring performer Linda (though her singing was dubbed by Martha Mears). The film is crisply directed with a sure hand by Mark Sandrich, a veteran of numerous Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals, and his camera showcases the musical performances beautifully.

Because the film was such a success, and because people just kept buying that Bing single, Paramount decided to return to the well again 12 years later with the film WHITE CHRISTMAS. It was intended to be the third Crosby/Astaire/Berlin feature (after 1946’s BLUE SKIES), but Astaire passed on the script. Crosby did, too, deciding to spend time at home after the death of his wife. When Bing returned to the project, finding a co-star proved problematic. Donald O’Connor was slated to take Astaire’s role, but suffered an injury prior to filming, so Danny Kaye stepped in at the last minute.

Determined to take full advantage of “White Christmas”’s perennial popularity, Paramount decided that the entire film should take place at the holidays. This time, the plot revolves around two ex-Army men who have made it big in show biz after WWII (Crosby and Kaye). They find themselves tangled up in a romance with two aspiring singer/dancers (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) and a deal to perform a new show at a ski resort run by their former commander over Christmas. However, when the winter proves unusually warm and no snow is due on the forecast, the resort’s future is in jeopardy and the team step in to try to save the day.

Keeping in line with the song’s continued success, the film was the top moneymaker of 1954, bringing in almost twice as much as its closest competitor, THE CAINE MUTINY. And why not? It’s hard to go wrong with such an appealing cast and such a great set of Irving Berlin tunes. However, I feel it lacks the dramatic edge of HOLIDAY INN, and while it may be a more traditional Christmas movie, it errs on the side of schmaltz a little too often for my taste. Danny Kaye makes for a particularly saccharine replacement for Astaire, replacing Astaire’s lean elegance for a cloying sweetness.

But on the plus side, Crosby’s as on as he ever was (though he’s a bit long in the tooth by this point to be the love interest of Rosemary Clooney, some 25 years his junior), and Clooney and Vera-Ellen are both incredibly engaging. Director Michael Curtiz brings his trademark flair for inventive camera set-ups and capturing the emotion of a scene to the proceedings and makes the film—Paramount’s first shot in the widescreen VistaVision process—a visual delight. My small criticisms aside, the film is undoubtedly worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of great Hollywood musicals, and is a bona fide Christmas classic.

With the holidays as hectic as they are, it’s important to take the time to cool down. And here’s a perfect excuse to do just that. Simply sit back at the Plaza and let the glorious tunes of Irving Berlin and the incomparable pipes of Bing Crosby carry you away to a White Christmas of your own.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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