New Year’s Eve in the Movies

In honor of the day, some favorite movies featuring New Year’s Eve scenes. This holiday is often used to mark extreme or catastrophic change in the life of the characters or their environment — a theme for us to contemplate this year in particular when the clock strikes midnight.

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The Gold Rush (1925)

Shame on you if you don’t know this movie or this scene. Led on by the supercilious dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale) lone prospector Charlie Chaplin prepares for what he thinks will be a delightful New Year’s party with Georgia and a few friends. He sleeps and dreams a magical time, but awakens to find himself alone and stood up. Warning: don’t watch if you’re alone and depressed!

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Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Something about the early Technicolor adds to the eeriness of this, one of the creepiest of classic studio era horror films. The opening scenes depict feisty girl reporter Glenda Farrell making her way through the crowded New York City streets on New Year’s Eve, clogged with carnivalesque revelers. Holidays are always interesting in older films — what people wear, the different ways they celebrated. Farrell’s journey will lead her to a corpse, and eventually to mad wax sculptor Lionel Atwill. 

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Every Day’s a Holiday (1937)

Mae West loved to celebrate the period of her early childhood, the gay ’90s, in her films.  Something about the era symbolized relative freedom to her, I think: saloons and bawdy houses and crooked politicians. That’s the milieu of her last true starring film Every Day’s a Holiday, set in Tammany era NYC, with crucial scenes taking place on New Year’s Eve 1900 — just when the city and nation were poised to go from horses and buggies to automobiles.

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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

One of the most touching scenes in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece has William Holden briefly escaping from the virtual tomb he has been inhabiting with former silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) to the relative joy and vitality of a proper New Year’s Eve party at a friend’s house, full of youth and music, and a much more appropriate girlfriend. The moment is a poignant blip, a last chance, a fleeting glimpse into a happy life he’ll never get to have.

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The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

At age seven this was my introduction to New Years’s Eve, the first place I heard “Auld Lang Syne”, witnessed a countdown to midnight, saw grownups with noise-makers and party hats. It’s part of the mysterious magic of this film (which is still one of my favorites) that the moment of disaster strikes just at midnight: it’s a new year and everything turns upside down. Celebration turns to tragedy in the blink of an eye. It’s part of the peculiar dream logic and symbolism of movies, and it works extraordinarily well.

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Jaws the Revenge (1987)

This is  a most entertainingly terrible movie which has only recently become a new classic around my house. (I never bothered with it when it came out.) It’s predicated on the concept that now-deceased Amity Island Police Chief Brody’s wife Ellen’s most irrational fears are TRUE — that a sentient, malevolent, psychic shark has designs on her family for some reason, and that you get killed every time you are crazy enough to go into the water. That her son managed to become a MARINE BIOLOGIST given such a family dynamic is one of the film’s countless delightful head-scratchers. Lorraine Gary is the film’s star, Roy Scheider having long since decided he had far better things to do. At any rate, the film starts around Christmas (her other son is killed by a shark while people on shore sing Christmas carols), and so the family travels to the Bahamas to forget it all (wouldn’t you choose someplace far INLAND?) At any rate, the New Year’s Eve scene in this film is memorable for being one of tent pole WTF moments, where you go…”H’m, we seem to have lost the narrative thread here.” As Gary and Michael Caine dance and romance each other and talk, and various other characters move around the party and talk, and you’re like, “Wasn’t this supposed to be a thing about sharks?” Oh, but it will be, for Bruce the Shark soon swims the thousand or more miles to the Bahamas from New England just to have another go at this particular family. New Year, same old killer shark!

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Boogie Nights (1997)

Much like Mae West’s Every Day’s a Holiday, P.T. Anderson’s porn-industry portrait features a scene on a historically significant New Year’s Eve, in this case not a century demarcation but an important change of decades. The coming of the ’80s (and home video) will mean the end of porn theatres, and the end of the time when the industry had some claims to professionalism. Soon any amateur could grab a video camera and make their own porn and the industry would be glutted. The death of the old era is symbolized by a tragedy at the party — but I won’t spoil it, in the unlikely event you’ve not seen this terrific movie.

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New Year’s Eve (2011)

Let’s get one thing straight: New Year’s Eve is a nearly unwatchable trough of expensive garbage. You can just hear Garry Marshall saying, “Ya like good lookin’ young people? I’ll give ya 28 good lookin’ young people — plus Robert de Niro!” I watched a good hunk of this rubbish for the first time last year, and there was one aspect I found very interesting, however. Its structure…of constant cross-cutting between over-expository scenes of diverse people bustling around in anticipation of some major event….feels EXACTLY like the opening act of a DISASTER MOVIE. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that it’s set in New York…TIMES SQUARE, to be precise. A major terrorist target. And I LOVE disaster movies . So I so badly want this to be a disaster movie, to re-cut it, so that instead of a midnight countdown, the climax will be a gigantic wall of water coming from the Hudson River, or a bunch of mid-town skyscrapers toppling like dominoes. And the fact that this DOESN’T happen, in particular, to all these beautiful Caucasian cipher-people, is a total let down.  Roland Emmerich, please step in and give us a new third act for this movie.

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