Saturday, December 16, 2017

December 16, 2017: Christmas as the Season of Giving, Modeled on the Greatest Gift of All: And Some Gift Recommendations (Part 2)

Friends,

Yesterday I began a two-part MY CORNER discussing various books, films on DVD, and compact discs that might be considered as gifts for Christmas. This will be Part 2.
I began by discussing several books, most of them recently published but a couple from a few years back. I mentioned books written in 2017 by Paul C. Graham, Paul Gottfried, Jack Kerwick, and Tito Perdue (in 2015), all of whom are friends. Inadvertently, I left out a couple of important titles by another friend and compatriot, columnist and author Ilana Mercer.  And I would like to correct that now.

A year ago Ilana published a major analysis of the Donald Trump campaign and agenda, and it remains required reading as we finish the first year of the Trump presidency. It isThe Trump Revolution: The Donald’s Creative Destruction Deconstructed  (Politically Incorrect Press, June 2016). But I would also highlight an earlier work, Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa (Bytech Services), from 2012. Not since French author Jean Raspail’s breath-taking The Camp of the Saints, has such a stunning wake-up call been issued to those of us in the American and European West. A native of South Africa Ilana’s story highlights in vivid detail, with pointed lessons, what happened to a culture when multiculturalism and political correctness ran amok, as it did in that once very prosperous country, after the advent to power of Communist revolutionary Nelson Mandela. Mandela, of course, was praised to high heaven in the West, and his success, engineered by both the Anglo-American Left AND the establishment Right, was seen as a triumph for “democracy.” In fact, it was the triumph of barbarism, corruption, terror inflicted on the native whites, and the sinking of the country into “Third World” autocracy.

Now let’s consider some films that are available on DVD and a few compact discs—items that may be of interest and that could be special stocking-stuffers for that parent or aunt or brother.

There are several classics that any list should probably include. First, the traditional version of The Miracle on 34th Street (20th Century Fox), with Edmund Gwen and John Payne, must be included. This 1947 gem never goes out of season, and is one of those great films for the entire family—especially, say, on a Christmas Day afternoon after everyone has over-feasted on turkey, ham, pies and cakes! There is a more modern version, but it pales in comparison with the 1947 movie.

Of course, no Christmas can go forward without viewing some version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The novel has been filmed numerous times. There is that wonderful offering from 1984, with George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge, and the superb 1938 version with Reginald Owen and Gene Lockhart, and several more modern adaptations (which are less impressive).  But the one I want to recommend is perhaps the best of the lot, and one that you may not have seen. It’s from 1951 and stars the inimitable Alastair Sim as Scrooge; it’s on DVD on VCI Entertainment—sure to bring tears to your eyes and joy to your heart.

Another heart-warming film for the Christmas Season is Come to the Stable (20th Century Fox), from 1949. Starring Loretta Young and Elsa Lanchester, it is the real-life story of two French nuns, refugees from war-torn Normandy, who come to the small town of Bethlehem, Connecticut, intent of building a children’s hospital. Their insurmountable task is transformed and successful, as if by a miracle—a miracle that comes through faith in the Christ-Child of Bethlehem.

Another film shot through with Christmas symbolism is John Ford’s memorable, Three Godfathers (Warner DVD) from 1948. There is an earlier version from 1936, but the later issue is in color and features John Wayne and Ward Bond. The “three godfathers” of the title, bandits Wayne, Harry Carey Jr., and Pedro Armendariz, have as their task to convey a young baby to safety across a brutal desert to the town of Jerusalem, and in the process find redemption for their wayward ways. The Christian and Christmas-time imagery is unmistakable in this moving presentation.

During the Christmas season Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikowsky is always well-represented and well-known for his Nutcracker Ballet; it is performed and played as by ritual until almost everyone knows, by now, the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” or some other excerpt. But Tchaikowsky also wrote a truly delightful—and completely accessible—Christmas opera, The Tsarina’s Slippers (Cherevichki, in Russian). It has been recorded successfully on Compact Disc (on Dynamic CDs), but a few years back the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London, produced it on stage and Opus Arte released it on DVD (2010).

Opera is not everyone’s cup of tea—all that screaming and hollering and such, you know!—but I can guarantee that this one, simply through its wonderful folk-like melodies and the superb and colorful staging (in an 18th century Russian/Ukrainian village), with its involvement of a “good” witch who flies about on a broom and the young hero’s special task of seeking to fetch a ruby-red slipper from the Tsarina of Russia (Catherine the Great), will bring smiles and delight all round. The final scene is one fantastic celebration of the Holy Day of Christmas and the goodness that flows from it.

Not exactly related to Christmas or the Christmas holiday, yet nevertheless, a sheer joy to watch, is another John Ford creation, imbued with his love of tradition and his appreciation of American history, The Sun Shines Bright (1953). Based on Irwin Cobb’s short stories of post-War Between the States Kentucky, Ford’s film is a cinematic portrait of late Reconstruction in the Bluegrass State, with delightful sketches of United Confederate Veterans played superbly, with both humor and pathos, by Charles Winninger, Slim Pickens, and Russell Simpson (Simpson began acting in 1903!). Winninger is Judge William “Billy” Priest, a role that Will Rogers took in an earlier version from the 1930s. Both issues are excellent, but I prefer the 1953 production. It’s on Olive Films: get the Blu-ray edition.

And continuing on a Southern theme, for forty-five minutes of memorable, rib-splitting humor, there is a DVD (on the BMG label) of the late, much lamented Lewis Grizzard, performing his hilarious stand-up routines. Grizzard was legendary for his newspaper columns and his books, and this unique DVD is the lone example that we have of him on camera.

For the children in your family—but also for us adults—there is the animated production, Arthur Christmas (Sony Pictures), a fun movie all round, the story of Santa Claus’s son, Arthur, and his quest to deliver a  missed gift, the last present, to a deserving child. The message—the spiritual message and the love—of Christmas comes through this, one of the better, recent animated releases.

Turning to Compact Discs, there is one secular selection I would recommend, for nostalgia's sake. It is a box of the orchestral music of Finnish composer Jan Sibelius, with the late Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Halle Orchestra (Warner Classics DCs). Almost everyone has heard Sibelius's work "Finlandia" (which is included), but a symphony in the box (no. 2) brought back memories, as many years ago I was able to attend a performance of it in Raleigh, I think in December (I was home from school), led by Barbirolli. It was a kind of Christmas present back then.

Of Christmas albums, there are several featuring the Vienna Choir Boys. There are dozens of selections to choose from, but I’ve always enjoyed the “Christmas Favorites” issue (on Cobra Entertainment), “Christmas with the Vienna Choir Boys” (RCA), and the “The Little Drummer Boy” (Cobra Entertainment). There is also “The Story of Silent Night” on DVD (Questar). In each of these choices a variety of carols, both traditional and more modern, are offered.

Two liturgical selections bring this list to a close. Certainly, I could list Handel's "Messiah," or Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” or the exquisitely beautiful Gregorian Latin Masses for Christmas; but let me get off the beaten track and mention items that may not be that familiar but which should offer hours of delight.

First, the German composer, Michael Praetorius, created (circa 1620) what he called a “Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning.” And like other composers of the period, he integrates earlier, traditional hymns and carols (pre-Reformation) into his work. It’s a haunting and memorable work, with some toe-tapping melodies, and is available on Archiv Produktion CDs (with Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort).

And from one of the most notable French Catholic composers of the period, Baroque master and composer for Louis XIV, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, there is the “Messe de Minuit” (Christmas Eve Midnight Mass), which, like the Praetorius work, incorporates then-popular French Christmas carols. My favorite recording is the classic EMI release, with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Field and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Also included is the very familiar Charpentier “Te Deum,” made famous as the signature opening music for “Masterpiece Theatre” [go check it out on You Tube. This choice has over 1.2 millions views!].

There are dozens—hundreds—more items that could and probably should be mentioned—some far more popular and well-known. Each of us will have our own favorites. But this short list offers some items that are quite special and give incredible pleasure and joy, and that assist us to truly celebrate Christmas in the spirit that radiates from that Holy Babe in a Manger, born unto us some 2,000 years ago, and whose coming forever changed our history and our lives.

Dr. Boyd D. Cathey

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