Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Holidaze Review: Star in the Night (1944)

It can’t be easy to attempt a fresh take on one of the oldest and most revered stories known to man: The Nativity, the tale of Joseph and Mary, of their trip to Bethlehem, of their search for shelter on a cold winter’s night and of the birth of their child, the baby Jesus.

But Star in the Night, the Oscar-winning short subject for 1944, tells the story in modern dress, with great simplicity and efficiency (it’s only 20 minutes long.

Nick (J. Carroll Naish) is the surly owner/operator of a rest station in the desert.(I thinbk he’s supposed to be Greek, but Naish plays him with an exaggerated Italian accent.) Life has got Nick down, and he has little use for holiday cheer. He tells a hitchhiker (Donald Woods) that because people are rotten to each other every other day of the year, why should it be any different on Christmas? Nick refuses to spare a room or a cup of coffee for the hitchhiker, but does let him come in and warm himself by the fire for a few minutes.

Nick has just installed a super-bright light (shaped like a star, of course) to draw customers from near and far. Seems to be working—on Christmas Eve, all of his cabins are filled with various discontented travelers, including a woman who constantly complains about the noise and mess made by the travelers next door who won’t stop singing carols; a man angry the laundry service messed up his shirts; and a couple who insist on extra blankets, no matter how much Nick and his wife assure them that the cabins are warm and comfortable.

There’s no more room for any more visitors—not for the hitchhiker, nor for the three guys on horseback who have ridden at least 10 miles through the desert following the light of the super-bright star light. And certainly not for the young couple whose car dies outside the station, the young woman obviously unwell and needing rest. Nick’s wife suggests that they stay in the shed out back…

See where this is going? Of course you do. But Star in the Night wisely shifts the focus away from the familiar story and focuses on the role of the innkeeper, Nick. He’s hard and bitter at the beginning of the story, but he becomes softer and warmer as he watches everyone else forgets their own concerns to help the young woman when she goes into labor. (Although it’s never stated out loud that she’s pregnant—it’s only whispered into characters’ ears--and she wears loose-fitting clothing that hides her baby bump. Something in the Production Code, I’m sure). The woman who has to get up early stops complaining and pitches in to help; the couple who asked for extra blankets gives those blankets to the cause; and the man whose shirts were ruined shreds the shirts for bandages.

By the end, Nick is crying tears…of joy.

Star in the Night packs a lot of story into its short running time, but director Don Siegel (who later helmed such diverse features as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry and The Shootist) moves things along briskly without making it feel rushed. And despite the familiarity of the story, the performers all throw themselves into their roles with both gravity and humor, making them all much more human relatable than they would have been had this been played as a more obvious allegory.

Instead, Star in the Night is as reassuringly warm as a cup of coffee on a cold December night. You may know where it’s going, but you’ll enjoy getting there.

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