For Every Season, a Classic Holiday Movie

Three films fit for fall

From left to right, Betty Field, Cliff Robertson, Verna Felton, Kim Novak, William Holden, Rosalind Russell, Arthur O'Connell, and Susan Strasberg in 1955's <em>Picnic</em> (Ronald Grant Archive/Everett Collection)
From left to right, Betty Field, Cliff Robertson, Verna Felton, Kim Novak, William Holden, Rosalind Russell, Arthur O'Connell, and Susan Strasberg in 1955's Picnic (Ronald Grant Archive/Everett Collection)

Christmas movies have spawned an entire industry of their own, from the Freeform channel’s annual 25 Days of Christmas to Hallmark’s year-round airing of sentimental Noël-themed fare. More frequently overlooked are autumn’s holidays—and the classic films that suit them, too. Here is a recommendation each for Labor Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving, and in December, we’ll run a sequel devoted to multiple movies set on Christmas, New Year’s Eve, July 4th, and even Christmas in July.

Labor Day: Picnic, 1955

Hal Carter (William Holden), a football star in college and a failure at everything since, hops off a freight train with nothing but the ragged shirt on his back. He arrives at a last resort: the small town in Kansas where his fraternity mate, Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), the well-to-do son of an industrialist, lives. It is Labor Day, 1955, and everyone has the day off, but Hal offers to do back-yard work for Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton), the kindly old lady who feeds him and obligingly offers to wash his shirt, thus giving us a look at his buff, shaven chest.

The “us” in that last sentence includes Benson’s girlfriend, Madge Owens (Kim Novak at her most stunning). At the town’s annual Labor Day picnic, Madge will be crowned the Queen of the Neewollah (Halloween spelled backwards). Many, including Millie (Susan Strasberg), Madge’s young sister, drink too much at the picnic, and Hal gets blamed for everything that goes wrong.

Neither Holden nor Novak is a natural dancer, but when they dance at the picnic to the tune of “Moonglow,” the sparks fly. Whereas Novak and James Stewart play out a passionate romance on the interior level of the psyche in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the physical attraction between Novak and Holden is electric. Benson castigates the “same old Hal” to whom he had earlier promised a job, albeit as a “wheat scooper” rather than the executive positon Hal had unrealistically hoped for. Hal leaves town the same way he arrived, only this time, Madge packs a suitcase and plans to take a bus to meet him in Tulsa.

Rosalind Russell and Arthur O’Connell give outstanding performances as the town’s frustrated schoolmarm and her reluctant suitor, who must settle for what small-town life can give them. Joshua Logan directed this film adaptation of William Inge’s Broadway play. See Picnic on Labor Day weekend if you can. It’s hot.

Halloween: Arsenic and Old Lace, 1944

Drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), formerly a confirmed bachelor, decides to tie the knot with childhood sweetheart Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane). They marry on Halloween in this Frank Capra excursion into high hilarity and macabre humor. When Mortimer goes to Brooklyn to share the happy news with the kindly maiden aunts who brought him up, the ensuing revelations defy belief. Grant, whose comic genius is on full display, has dealt with madcap situations before, but none that depict a wacky Halloween of the imagination. Arsenic and Old Lace is partly a spoof of—and delight in—horror movies and murder mysteries that end happily.

The aunts (Josephine Hull and Jane Adair) take in lodgers: nice, old gentlemen, whom they welcome with a glass of wine spiked with three kinds of poison. They kill not out of cruelty, mind you, but out of compassion for the suffering of lonely elderly bachelors, and they bury the men in the cellar.  Also living at the house is Mortimer’s brother Teddy, who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt, dresses the part, and yells “Charge!” whenever ascending the stairs, which evidently stand for San Juan Hill. Teddy believes that the bodies buried below belong to men who contracted yellow fever while building the Panama Canal.

To add to the mischief and mayhem, Mortimer’s other brother, Jonathan (Raymond Massey), a dead ringer for Frankenstein as portrayed by Boris Karloff, shows up. A serial murderer like his aunts but with evil intent, he is accompanied by his drunken Sancho Panza, a plastic surgeon named Einstein (Peter Lorre), who has given Jonathan his spooky face. “Insanity runs in my family; it practically gallops,” an exasperated Mortimer confides in Elaine.

At the end of the movie, Brewster learns he is not related to the lunatic others. When he and Elaine embark on their nuptial journey in the taxi that they have kept waiting, Mortimer gleefully exclaims, “I’m not a Brewster, I’m a son of a sea cook.” To which the exasperated taxi driver, catching the movie’s spirit, replies, “I’m not a cabdriver. I’m a coffeepot”—a wonderful last line, topped only by Cary Grant’s “Charge!” as off to their honeymoon the lovers go.

Thanksgiving: Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986

Arguably Woody Allen’s most moving comedy begins with a family gathering at Thanksgiving, a suitable occasion for the sibling loyalties and rivalries that link three sisters: Hannah (Mia Farrow), Lee (Barbara Hershey), and Holly (Dianne Wiest). Two subsequent Thanksgivings mark the movie’s middle and end.

Elliot (Michael Caine), married to Hannah, has the hots for Lee, whose husband is the dour, older Frederick (Max Von Sydow). Holly, who has flunked as an actress and in her catering business, borrows money from Hannah to subsidize her new career as a writer, but her first effort is all too transparently about an affair between someone like Lee and someone like Elliot, and Hannah freaks out.

In a touching scene, the sisters’ parents (Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O’Sullivan), who have weathered many a storm, sing Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” at the piano (with Woody’s go-to pianist Dick Hyman tickling the keys). As always with Allen, the soundtrack is marvelous and eclectic:  Harry James, Bach, Count Basie, Jerome Kern, and Bobby Short playing Cole Porter at the Carlyle, and that’s just a partial list.

Allen himself plays Mickey, Farrow’s ex-husband. A hypochondriac in a panic, he fears he has a brain tumor and considers converting to Catholicism. When Mickey asks his father why there were Nazis, the old man replies, “How do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works.” But Mickey doesn’t have cancer, and, by the third Thanksgiving, one marriage has survived, one sister has left her husband and married someone else, and Mickey and Holly defy the odds and form an unexpectedly fruitful collaboration.

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David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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