A Star and a Gift: Two remarkable classic movies for the holidays

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington

Each year the Christmas season gets underway with carols and festive songs on the radio, parades, parties, decorations and a host of holiday-themed movies on television. When you think of Christmas movies, certain perennial favorites come to mind, such as A Christmas Carol (1938), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). And if your taste runs to more modern fare, the viewing possibilities become almost endless.

But if you prefer movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age (1930s – 1950s), as I do, you may want to take a look at a couple of short films from the 1940s that, although seldom shown on TV, deserve some recognition and even a little fanfare. These little-known and unjustly neglected films: The Greatest Gift (1942) and Star in the Night (1945), with running times of 11 minutes and 22 minutes, respectively, are guaranteed to warm your heart and put you in the proper spirit to celebrate the birth of our Savior.

The Greatest Gift, as we learn in the opening frame, is based on a medieval French legend concerning monks who, while snowed in during the winter months, dedicate themselves to fashioning gifts they will offer to the Virgin when springtime arrives. When a half-frozen itinerate juggler, played by Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street), is found outside the monastery, the abbot, Father Cyprian, has the poor man brought inside and cared for. The juggler, Bartolomé, was hoping to make it to the winter fair in Florence before the snow closed the pass to Italy, but the pass is already closed, so he will have to spend the winter with the monks.

With the coming of spring Bartolomé prepares to go on his way, but he is persuaded to remain for the next day’s festivities in honor of the Blessed Lady. As the monks add the final touches to their gifts, Bartolomé, intending to make an offering of his own, selects his two best juggling clubs, but Father Cyprian, in his wisdom, tells the poor juggler he will not allow him to give away his only means of earning a living, adding that after all, “a grateful heart is the greatest gift of all.”

The next day the monks process into the little chapel chanting and carrying their gifts – fine candles and fancy candlesticks, beautiful altarpieces and illuminated manuscripts – all of which they lay before the statue of the Virgin. Bartolomé offers a gift as well, but you will have to watch the film’s spectacular conclusion to discover what it is.

In Star in the Night (winner of the Academy Award for that year’s Best Short Film) the scene shifts from medieval Europe to Christmas Eve in the southwestern part of the United States in the 1940s. We see three men on horseback loaded with gifts they purchased because they wanted to impress a salesgirl. As they ride along in the dark, wondering what to do with all these store-bought items, they notice a bright star in the distance and ride toward it. The source of the light is a huge star-shaped sign advertising the Star Auto Court (as motels were called at that time) owned by the cynical, Scrooge-like Nick Catapoli and his virtuous wife, Rosa.

Nick, who thinks the worst of people and hates Christmas, refuses hospitality to a passing hitchhiker, a man who only wants to warm himself by the stove and get a cup of coffee. The hitchhiker espouses peace, brotherhood and love, but Nick calls these things “a lot of baloney.” On this night when everyone should be of good cheer, all the guests display just the opposite. They are discontented because they are thinking only of themselves: a woman complains because the people in the cabin next to hers are signing loudly (they are singing Christmas carols); a man is upset because the shirts he sent out to the cleaners were improperly ironed and one is torn; an elderly couple argue with Nick over getting extra blankets for their cabin.

At this point a young couple, José Santos and his wife María, arrive at the auto court. José asks for a cabin because María is not well. But Nick can’t help them because there are no more vacancies. However, Rosa generously offers them the use of a little shed, a barn, where the young couple can rest. Most viewers, long before this scene, will have figured out that Star in the Night is a re-telling of the Christmas story. What ensues after Rosa leads José and María to the barn is not unexpected, but it’s what happens to all the other characters that makes this little gem of a film memorable and well worth watching.

This Christmas season treat yourself to these two short films and you will wonder why they are not regularly shown on TV during the holidays. Each one is available on YouTube. For The Greatest Gift the website is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6QmDPF-ln8 and for Star in the Night go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXjdBs70syY. Happy viewing and Merry Christmas!

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)