I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a Thanksgiving movie. Thanksgiving is unique to North America, so Hollywood may not consider it to be marketable outside the U.S.A. and Canada. However, I have selected three of my favorite films that at least recognize Turkey Day in one way or another.
1. The Ice Storm (1997) with Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Tobey McGuire, and Christina Ricci as the Hood Family; Jamey Sheridan, Sigourney Weaver, Elijah Wood, and Adam Hann-Byrd as the Carver Family: The story takes place in 1973 amidst the sexual revolution. Tobey comes home from prep school to spend the holidays with his dysfunctional family. The Hoods’ Thanksgiving dinner is awkward and sheer torture, but Christina Ricci’s socially conscious blessing is hilarious. Kevin and Sigourney are having a clandestine “affair.” Kevin is happy with it, but Sigourney is not interested in being his second wife. Kevin’s daughter, Miss Ricci, is trying to have an affair with each of the Carver brothers. Elijah plays one really weird kid, but Adam plays his really deranged younger brother. On a day trip, Tobey tries to score with a classmate, but drugs get in the way of his plans. Meanwhile, it starts getting cold. The parents attend a key party, and things get pretty dicey. Look for President Bartlett’s press secretary of The West Wing, Allison Janney, as the hostess of the key party. Tobey and Elijah nearly steal the movie, but Ang Lee’s brilliant direction keeps it all in balance. This is a wonderful film with fine performances and beautiful photography; but it is leisurely paced and a real downer at the end, so be sure to follow it up quickly with one of the other holiday recommendations.
2. Miracle on 34th Street (1947) with Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and Natalie Wood: This little classic begins with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and ends on Christmas Day. Lawyer John Payne realizes he can never win the heart of his neighbor, Maureen O’Hara, until he can convince her skeptical daughter, young Natalie Wood, that there really is a Santa Claus. He gets help from Edmund Gwenn, who believes that he really is Kris Kringle! The court hearing to prove Gwenn is in fact Santa Claus it is priceless. Gwenn won a supporting actor Oscar for this, and the rest of the cast is fine as well. Watch for William Frawley (Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy) as the judge’s political advisor.
3. Giant (1956) with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean: They don’t make stars like these people anymore! Hudson was pretty near flawless in this one and should have won an Oscar for it. Dean was also nominated, but he never even saw the movie, having died in a car crash before its final editing.
Listen for the voice of Paul Newman in Dean’s last scene – Jimmy was completely incoherent when it was filmed, so Paul was asked to dub the lines for Jimmy’s banquet speech. (Apparently I’ve been mistaken about this since 1956 when I first “learned” that Mr. Newman did the voiceover – and it certainly sounds like him every time I see the movie. Nick Adams, the actor and friend of Mr. Dean, is likely the one who did the dubbing. Actor Corey Allen, who was in Rebel Without a Cause with Dean, is also mentioned as being the one who did it.)
Giant is essentially an equal rights film and was released only after the end of the McCarthy Era. Edna Ferber’s novel was published in 1952 while the House Un-American Activities committee and Sen. Joe McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt were still going strong.
Few issues are ignored in this movie in which Texas itself is also a star: old cattle wealth v. new oil wealth, rich v. poor, whites v. Hispanics, men v. women.
Elizabeth Taylor, a longtime proponent for equal rights, seemed to be playing herself as Leslie Lynnton. Leslie from back East, marries a Texan and has to confront intolerance of women’s rights and bigotry against Hispanics. Interestingly, Dennis Hopper plays the son of Hudson and Taylor. Hopper, as Jordan Benedict III, marries an Hispanic, causing all sorts of problems. Hopper fondly recalled this movie as the one when he played a good guy.
In Part 1, Hudson’s Bick Benedict is temporarily estranged from his wife and has a lonely Thanksgiving dinner in Texas, while Taylor’s Leslie Benedict is back home in Maryland having a huge family get-together. In Part 2, Dean’s Jett Rink shows up on Christmas Day and has no idea what day it is.
All through this giant of a movie, you will want to like Hudson’s character, Bick Benedict, but you won’t find it easy because he’s so bigoted. You won’t make up your mind about him until you hear “The Yellow Rose of Texas” booming from the juke box in Sarge’s hamburger joint.
by David Offutt, October 2005