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A trip down memory lane with the magic of Christmas movies

Pat MurphyI’ve always associated Christmas with the movies. Or, as we put it in my Dublin childhood, going to the pictures. And I don’t necessarily mean movies with specific Christmas themes or settings, although there’ve certainly been some of them.

Rather it’s a function of particular movies meshing with particular memories. Here are a few of them.

The Gay Ranchero (1950)

Christmas Eve 1950 was my first cinematic experience. I was six years old at the time, and the impetus for the excursion came from the Dublin Evening Herald, which had picked up the daily Roy Rogers comic strip several weeks earlier. The strip itself was relatively new. Via King Features Syndicate, it had debuted in the United States on December 2, 1949, and the popularity of the “King of the Cowboys” – as the Rogers publicity machine felicitously dubbed him – was sufficient to generate transatlantic newspaper interest.

christmas movies

Photo by Corina Rainer

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Like many comic strips of the era, there was a continuing storyline. While it might take anywhere up to 10 weeks for a particular adventure to work its way to a conclusion, you could confidently depend on one thing: With the assistance of Trigger, the golden palomino advertised as “The Smartest Horse in the Movies,” Roy would ultimately triumph over the bad guys.

It was early in the week before Christmas that – thanks to the Evening Herald’s entertainment page – I noticed a picture called The Gay Ranchero was playing at the Theatre Deluxe cinema. And it had Roy and Trigger in it. So, through a combination of wheedling and begging, I managed to get my father to take me on Christmas Eve.

I later discovered that The Gay Ranchero wasn’t a new film in 1950. It had actually been shot in 1947 and originally released the following year. However, Dublin cinemas often coped with the lead-up to Christmas by screening older features, thereby saving the new releases for Christmas week proper.

It’s also fair to say that the film wasn’t sophisticated, elaborate or expensive. With a running time of just 72 minutes, it fitted neatly into the B-movie western framework then in vogue. Roy turned out an average of five such movies per year in the second half of the 1940s. His great cowboy rival, Gene Autry, was just a smidge less prolific.

The cinema itself was tasteful, boasting an Art Deco façade dating from the mid-1930s. But a six-year-old mind didn’t notice that sort of thing and wouldn’t have been impressed by it anyway.

Waiting for the picture to start was a test of sub-juvenile patience. And anxiety peaked when the lights dimmed and a different picture came up on the screen. Were we, by some dreadful mistake, at the wrong cinema?

As it transpired, all was well. What we were seeing was simply the supporting feature, and eventually Roy and Trigger appeared in all their big screen celluloid glory.

It was engrossing stuff, replete with a liberal amount of riding, chasing, fist-fighting and shooting. Even if you didn’t know anything about Roy, you instantly knew he was the hero. After all, he had the best horse, the fanciest shirts, the decorated boots and the snazziest gun belt.

But there were a couple of things that surprised me about the plot.

One was that it revolved around thwarting freight airline saboteurs, which wasn’t the kind of thing I expected cowboys to be engaged in.

And the other was the generous inclusion of songs and musical sequences. The fact that valuable screen time was being devoted to people singing didn’t strike me as a plus. Who wanted to see Roy whipping out a guitar when he could have been drawing his six-shooter instead?

So en route home, I interrogated my father.

What were airplanes, trucks and telephones doing in a cowboy story? Shouldn’t it be just horses, cattle, ranches and saloons?

And did this contradiction mean that the story wasn’t true? Could it be that there was no Roy Rogers?

My father was careful in his answer. It was, he said, 1950. Airplanes, trucks and telephones were part of the world we lived in. And, as a modern cowboy, Roy had to deal with that.

It was what I wanted to hear on Christmas Eve. At six years of age, I was starting to have my doubts about Santa Claus, but at least Roy Rogers was real. My father had assured me so.

Do Not Disturb/Thunderball (1965)

After immigrating to Canada in November 1965, I found myself in a situation that countless others had experienced over the decades – alone in a strange country where I knew nobody. And on Christmas Day itself, the house where I rented a room was completely deserted, the other renters having decamped to more seasonally convivial surroundings. So I headed out to the pictures: not just one, but two.

First up was Do Not Disturb, the brand new entry in a series of Doris Day romantic comedies that had started with Pillow Talk in 1959. In addition to Doris and recurring co-stars like Rock Hudson, the movies had two things in common.

By the standards of their time, they were regarded as the epitome of respectably risqué sophistication. And they were hugely popular, sufficiently so to make Doris North America’s biggest movie star in the first half of the decade. However, Do Not Disturb broke the pattern and the hitherto powerful commercial tide rapidly receded.

Meanwhile, another form of fantasy franchise was developing an enormous head of steam. Thunderball, the fourth in the James Bond series, was the most successful yet. Even in a venue as large as Toronto’s cavernous Odeon Carlton, seeing it on Christmas evening involved queuing around the block.

Out of Africa (1985)

Although I was familiar with Meryl Streep, I’d never actually been touched by a performance, not even by her Academy Award-winning turn in Sophie’s Choice. Oh, I’d no trouble recognizing the skill; it just didn’t move me.

But her Karen Blixen portrayal in Out of Africa was a different matter. Suffused with a sense of subtle melancholy, it had a wistful, almost elegiac, quality that lifted the material a notch or two above its natural station. Partly based on Blixen’s 1937 memoir of the years she spent in Kenya and released over Christmas 1985, the movie’s sometimes glacial pace fitted appropriately with its underlying feeling of loss and regret.

Mind you, my reaction was probably influenced by the fact that, even if I was only vaguely aware of it, the tectonic plates were shifting under my own personal world.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.

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