SILENT NIGHT, LONELY NIGHT (ONLINE)
Lloyd Bridges and Shirley Jones, 1969
A recent Christmas found me cruising YouTube searching for “Classic Christmas Specials”. I’m still regularly amazed by what you can find on YouTube. I suppose how it sometimes works is that some YouTube user will gather random videos with a common theme and make a Playlist and I have found multiple lists of videos featuring classic Christmas movies and/or specials and again I say that the videos you can uncover can be astounding; real relics from the past. Often I will play one of these playlists and just see what rolls out. Some Christmas programs I can’t believe were ever made and I’m shaking my head. Every now and then, though, you’ll find a gem. Two I’ve written about in the past are The Great Rupert (1950) and Beyond Tomorrow (1940). One I stumbled on this year was intriguing and I thought I’d hip you to it.
Silent Night, Lonely Night started life in 1959 as a play written by Robert Anderson, the man who gave us the poignant Tea and Sympathy. Another of his successful plays was I Never Sang for My Father, a story for which he also wrote the screen treatment. As a screenwriter, his credits include Until They Sail (1957) and The Sand Pebbles (1968). Silent Night on Broadway starred Henry Fonda (54 at the time) and Barbara Bel Geddes (aged 37 in ’59) and was described as “a stinker…one of the biggest bombs…desultory” and featuring “wooden performances”.
Ten years later as a TV movie, the story starred Lloyd Bridges, who was 56 years old at the time, and a lady of singular beauty, Shirley Jones – yet another Pennsylvanian – who was 35 when she made this film. The story finds John Sparrow (Bridges) in a small Massachusetts town on Christmas Eve to visit his wife who is a patient in a local sanitarium. Coincidentally, Katherine Johnson (Jones) is in the same small town to visit her son who attends a local school. Heartbreak and struggle have lead these two here this Christmas; as John’s story rolls out, we learn that he had been unfaithful to his wife and as the two fought about it one day out on their boat with their daughter, neither noticed that the young girl had fallen overboard. With her daughter laying dead at her feet and with her marriage in ruins, Jennifer Sparrow (played here by Lynn Carlin, an Oscar-nominee this same year for Faces) loses her grip. She has been out of touch with reality ever since and John – riddled with guilt – has been seeking an annulment, something Jennifer – in her few lucid moments – has encouraged.
Katherine is running. Her husband has much more recently been unfaithful to her. Her husband is apologetic and remorseful and wants Katherine to collect their son and come for Christmas to join him in London, England. A gentle, loving woman, Katherine is crushed by her husband’s infidelity and wants none of him at this time. She just wants to be with her son for the holiday and get her bearings. Inevitably, John and Katherine meet and find they are staying at the same quaint country inn. They connect and begin to share their lives and their hurts with each other.
Going into Silent Night, Lonely Night, I was not happy and my preconceptions of the story and my own personal feelings were that I wanted nothing to do with it. I actually just let it play while I puttered around the basement. First of all, it seemed really depressing; “Well, it’s not a story for Christmas Eve, is it?”, John asks Katherine at one point. Secondly, I have no history with and subsequently no feelings towards Lloyd Bridges. I respect him and think it’s cool that he had a solid career himself before siring Jeff and Beau Bridges, two actors I will always love because of The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). What I saw of Lloyd in my first, superficial viewing of Silent Night was a man who looked every minute of his 56 years; even though I’ll admit he still had young eyes and great hair. What I saw in his co-star is what I see when I watch The Partridge Family, a show that Shirley Jones starred in beginning only months after this TV movie aired on December 16th of ’69; I saw a beautiful lady who while she had a mature look about her still maintained a youthful glow and a shining, luminous quality. So, the idea that this “old man” would be paired with – and eventually perhaps “pair with” – this decorous young woman made me angry. Not just with Hollywood’s way of perpetuating an aging actor’s seeming virility by teaming him with romantic partners much younger than him, but also my personal feeling that Bridges didn’t “deserve” Jones. I know. But that’s me. But here’s where playwright Anderson took over and changed my mind.
He has crafted a tale that slowly – some reviewers complained it was too slowly – unwinds and has you thoroughly engaged in the plight of these two. Tales of infidelity have to be handled a certain way. Writers have to be careful to get their audience on board with the pairing of two people who are married to someone else. Hopefully no viewer will go away saying that the story was a flop solely because the two never should have gotten together. While you may argue that under NO circumstances is adultery OK, many writers will construct tales that will make you or at least allow you to accept what’s happening. Robert Anderson does well here presenting the sad stories of these two and depicting their union as one that helps each to regain strength and to reaffirm their hold on life and happiness. It is a cleansing, a recalibrating, a rebooting of their inner CPUs. Anderson successfully convinces us that without this coupling neither could go on; they have now purged themselves of harmful debris and divested themselves of crushing baggage. Anderson – as he did in Tea and Sympathy – presents a scenario that not even the Hays Code could object to.
The ending – and I guess you could call this a spoiler – is well crafted, well choreographed and well written. It is bittersweet but leaves you with the acceptance of the fact that this is the only way this could really end. John decides to better cherish his wife even though he is faced with the idea that she can never really love him again – most times, she barely recognizes him. He makes a poignant comment that was referenced in a well stated User Review I read on IMDb. John feels it’s important to stay with his wife because he realizes “how important it is to have someone to remember with” adding significantly that “without her I have no past”. That’s heavy and an excellent sentiment. Unfortunately, you wonder what kind of future he’s facing.
Katherine, for her part, collects her son and agrees to head to London to reunite with her husband. I’m not quite satisfied with Katherine’s handling of her husband in the wake of his transgression. He gets off too easily but this may simply smack of the times. Perhaps Anderson feels he has made the husband’s remorse sufficient. I was struck by a phone conversation Katherine has with her mate late in the film. At one point in the call, she hangs her head and closes her eyes in apparent relief. “Thank you for saying that, Paul,” she says, as if everything has just been made right. My question is: what did he say to her? Both John and Katherine express a sort of love for each other while accepting that they must part. They cannot share an affectionate goodbye as Katherine’s son has joined her at the inn to help her pack and get to the airport. John watches her walk down the hall and out of his life. As he retreats to his room, Katherine makes an excuse and runs back upstairs. Before she gets to John, his phone rings. It is his wife and Katherine stands outside listening to him share a tender conversation with a lucid Jennifer. All Katherine can do is smile and walk away.
I’m telling you, you’re left heaving a huge sigh! And it’s not because it’s terribly depressing after all but it is moving and evocative, bittersweet. Time will make this an episode for these two to cherish but in the moment it is tough to part; and tough for the viewer to watch them part.
In a clever casting move, “Jeffrey” Bridges portrays Lloyd Bridges’ character as a young man. This was Jeff’s first role of any real significance. Up until this point, he had only made minor appearances in episodic TV shows. Cloris Leachman and Carrie Snodgrass also have small roles, Cloris (43 here) looking particularly fetching. The film was directed by Canadian Daniel Petrie, who’s most notable achievement – besides being born in Nova Scotia – was directing another poignant film based on a play, Raisin in the Sun (1961). I thought I recognized the name and, sure enough, I found that Petrie’s son, Daniel, Jr., wrote the screenplay for my beloved The Big Easy (1986). I see Junior also scripted Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Turner and Hooch (1989). Petrie the Elder achieves some fine, sensitive shots in Silent Night.
The opening credits convey thanks to the town and people of Amherst, Massachusetts. The gorgeous little town is all decked out for a snowy Christmas and this makes for a visually pleasing experience. Lloyd tools around on a snowmobile – probably novel for 1969 – and he and Shirley take a sleigh ride and stroll around the cute town and the streets and shops are on full display. Additionally, this being a Universal production, characters here watch Universal films The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Bank Dick (1940).
I little bell went off when the credits revealed the music was done by one “William” Goldenberg; as if Billy could hide from me using his proper name. Billy Goldenberg is notable in Elvis World as he was the Musical Director for the seminal TV special now known as The ’68 Comeback Special. The music for this film is quaint though benign and it’s a shame that the film eschews Christmas songs, Lloyd’s character at one point saying “I don’t trust the radio. Those Christmas carols get me down.”
This is a lovely little time capsule that explores marriage and infidelity in a gentle and thoughtful way. Surprisingly, many User Reviews of this film at IMDb are on point and accurately depict this film as a sympathetic look at relationships. Maybe not your joyous Christmas Eve viewing but certainly interesting. It features excellent performances from two familiar faces, Jones earning an Emmy nomination for her work. I’m fascinated by films like this. Just goes to show you what you can find buried in the mists of time. Check it out.