Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Snowy Day Movies

If anyone asks me what I'm thankful for, it's that we had our first snowfall this week. It doesn't matter where I am or what I'm doing, the first snow of the season will always send a little jolt of electricity down my spine. Growing up in my tiny hometown in northern California, the first snowfall always followed a certain pattern. It would come at night, sudden and silent as a thief, and you would wake up to streets soaked in white. Because it was early in the season, the snow would melt as rapidly as it came and by lunchtime, all your dreams of snowball fights and sledding would have dwindled to the size of the slush puddles. But that didn't mean you couldn't still hope for a day off from school, since the ice could make the back roads a hazard. And that meant an early morning of waiting by the phone, listening to the snow fall off the tree branches, as you prayed for it to stay just a little longer.

Well, the first snowfall this year got me thinking about the way movies use snow. I'm such a fan of snow that even just watching it on film makes me happier. So on that note, I present you with a list of some of my favorite "snowy day" movies. 

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

It's best to get the most obvious entry out of the way early and as over-familiar as this film might be, it doesn't take away from the emotional power of watching George Bailey's life come apart in the falling snow. It's a movie that illustrates perfectly the first principle of snow. When you're miserable, it's just one more sign that God hates you. But when you're happy, it's a sign of renewal. A reminder that things can become beautiful again. Watching Jimmy Stewart joyfully wipe away blood and and flakes of frost from his face is one of cinema's great moments for a reason.

Queen Christina (1933)

Garbo just looks so fantastically healthy in this movie, doesn't she? As the headstrong, regal Queen Christina, Garbo is so beautiful and so vividly aware of her own body, that it's impossible to take your eyes from her. I don't know what kind of beauty regimen consists of staying up all night reading and then washing your face with snow but who can argue with such results? This movie earns a place here solely for that scene, which always makes me want to just copy Garbo and bury my face in some fresh snow.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

My astute readers will notice that I'm not including Citizen Kane on my list, despite it containing arguably the most famous snow scene in all of cinema. Well, that's because, great as it is, the sleigh ride sequence is many times greater. It's a perfectly staged vignette, a short story in its own right that foretells the dramatic clashes to come (youth versus age, the modern versus the traditional, and the first stirrings of infatuation versus an old love coming back into life). And more than that, it's also the last, truest moment of happiness before these characters will be consumed by a future they barely understand.

Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Curse of the Cat People should be taught in film schools as an object lesson that a low budget does not mean a film can't look beautiful. It's glorious to look at, a vivid evocation of a little girl's inner life and the mysteries she finds lurking in twisted trees and shadowed houses. But  the film positively shimmers in the snowy scenes, as our heroine's friendship with Simone Simon's ghost comes to a moving conclusion. Simon appears in the snow, garbed like the Good Fairy, her usual seductive appeal mellowed to a sweet melancholy. If you've seen Cat People, then Simon's scenes here act as a generous  counterpoint to her character in the previous film. Instead of the tormented monster, she's become the innocent fantasy.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

The sight of Catherine Deneuve, with her absurd tower of blonde hair and her fur coat, shaking off the snow and staring into the eyes of her former lover, is one that will never leave you.

Lost Horizon (1937)

I saw Lost Horizon as a kid and surprisingly, it's stuck with me all these years. I say "surprisingly" because really, how much can a child relate to the philosophical yearnings of Shangri-La and the malaise of adults wondering whether or not to surrender to happiness? But I think what caught my imagination wasn't the High Lama's speeches or the carefully Code-appropriate romance of Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt. It was for the scene where Colman and his brother are fleeing Shangri-La. They have taken a native woman along with them, played by the glamorous Margo. They climb the Himalayas, with the wind shrieking at their backs and the icy air lit up like the flames of Hell. Colman knows in his heart that it's senseless to leave the paradise of Shangri-La but the others are bitter, determined. And then his brother screams. "Look at her face, Bob, look at her face!" The beautiful woman they were carrying in their arms has aged a century in a single moment, turning into a withered crone. By leaving Shangri-La, she's doomed herself. And as Colman watches in horror, his brother goes mad and leaps from the mountain. He is left alone, with nothing to do but to keep walking away from the place he never wanted to leave.

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

(image taken from Classic Movies Digest)

Wins a place on this list for the moment where Joseph Cotten walks through Central Park with Jennifer Jones. Jones is Jennie, the strange, beguiling girl that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Jones was almost thirty at the time but she's perfectly childlike, clutching her muff and prattling on about school and the Kaiser and paintings, while Cotten listens, half-confused, half-enchanted. But as they start walking, the shadows fall over their faces and Jennie starts to sing. "Where I come from nobody knows and where I am going, everything goes. The wind blows, the sea flows, nobody knows. And where I am going, nobody knows." It's a moment to send a shiver down your spine as you realize you're not dealing with any conventional Hollywood romance.

Odd Man Out (1947)

I saw this film for the first time a few months ago and its final moments immediately became my favorite snow scene of all time. As you can see by this list, that's saying a lot. It's superb, haunting, unforgettable.