There are any number of Christmas movies out there to suit every taste, from umpteen versions of A Christmas Carol to golden oldies like It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street to more modern classics such as A Christmas Story, Elf, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Are horror films your thing? Try Black Christmas or Krampus. Prefer action-adventure? Die Hard can’t be beat. Are you a romantic? There are about 16,357 Hallmark Christmas movies to choose from, which share one plot between them.
Like Christmas music, however, Christmas films are a relatively small genre, and it’s easy to fall into the groove of watching the same ones over and over each year. I was therefore very pleasantly surprised to recently discover a delightful holiday film that was made in 1945, but which I had somehow managed to miss until it showed up on Turner Classic Movies a few weeks ago.
It is a short (21 minutes) Warner Bros. film called Star in the Night, directed by Don Siegel, whose first film this was (and who would go on to direct such classics as the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Coogan’s Bluff, and Dirty Harry). The closest thing to a “name” actor is J. Carrol Naish, a longtime character actor during the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, and someone whose life story would make a fitting subject for a movie. Born in New York to Irish parents, he joined the Navy at age 16 (and was booted out for being underage), served with the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France during WW I, spent several years sailing the world in the Merchant Marine (during which time he acquired eight different languages), came back to New York and tried his hand in theatre, and ended up in Hollywood by accident when the ship he was heading to China in had to stay in California for repairs and he was spotted by a talent scout.
By the time Star in the Night was made, Naish had appeared in close to 200 films. He plays Nick Catapoli, owner of the Star Auto Court somewhere in the New Mexico or Arizona desert. It is Christmas Eve, but Nick is in anything but a festive mood. The large electric star he purchased from the defunct Star Picture Palace, in order to boost his business, is on the fritz, and the guests at the auto court — including a woman complaining about carol singers, a man who is annoyed that the laundry has done a poor job on his shirts, and a demanding upper-class couple — are only reinforcing his view that people are generally miserable.
“Peace, brotherhood, and love: baloney!” he tells a hitchhiker who has turned up at the office-cum-diner that Nick and his kindly wife Rosa run, and who has tried to convince Nick that people are basically good at heart. When a young couple named Jose and Maria arrive looking for a room, Nick curtly tells them he has none left, but Rosa says there is room in the stable, where they will be warm. But it’s clear something is up with Maria, and it doesn’t take Rosa long to figure out what.
Viewers will be well ahead of her. Indeed, the film opens with three cowboys on horseback who have purchased numerous children’s toys in order to impress a pretty shop girl, and are led to Nick and Rosa’s auto court when, from afar, they see the star flickering above and decide to follow it. However, it is often the journey, and not the destination, that counts, and Star in the Night — thanks to a sharp script that draws heavily on the story of the birth of Christ and A Christmas Carol, and deft playing from the cast (particularly Naish and Rosina Galli as Rosa), who make their characters instantly memorable — is a simple but powerful journey (the film won the Academy Award for Best Two-Reel Short Film in 1946). For a delightful holiday treat, watch it at https://bit.ly/3yPAwM0. Merry Christmas!