The Thanksgiving Film Festival
Besides all that wonderful food, Thanksgiving is a time to spend with family, to watch football, or to shop, but some folks are not into any of those things. You can still enjoy the long holiday weekend by curling up with some Thanksgiving movies.
In 1965, 18-year-old Arlo Guthrie had Thanksgiving dinner in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, with his friends Ray and Alice Brock, who taught at his high school. He volunteered to take out the trash, which had been piling up for several months. The city dump was closed for the holiday, so Guthrie and his friend Richard Robbins dumped the garbage on top of other garbage elsewhere. Thanks to a piece of rubbish with the name “Brock” on it, Guthrie and Robbins were arrested for illegal dumping the next day, which eventually got him out of the Vietnam War draft because he had a criminal record. The situation was so absurd that Guthrie wrote a song about it. And the song, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," had such a great story that it was turned into a movie in 1969, starring Guthrie as himself. Alice Brock made a few cameo appearances in the film, but did not play herself.
The only other person involved in the original incident who appeared in the movie Alice's Restaurant was Stockbridge Police Chief William Obanhein, who arrested Guthrie in 1965 and was referred to as “Officer Obie” in the song and film. Obanhein had already achieved some notoriety before the incident as a model for Norman Rockwell, who lived in Stockbridge. Rockwell had a studio upstairs from the Back Door restaurant, which Alice Brock ran in the 1960s. Yes, that was the “Alice’s Restaurant” that gave the song and movie the title. Obanhein said later, “I was more or less talked into it. I figured, if I was going to make a fool out of myself I as might as well do it myself.”
The movie was shot in Stockbridge, using many of the original locations, and hired local residents as extras. In addition to the real-life story from the 18-minute song, several fictional subplots were added to bring the story to feature-length. The result was a combination comedy and political statement, which remains a Thanksgiving tradition long after the draft it protested. The former church where that 1965 Thanksgiving dinner was held is now The Guthrie Center, where Thanksgiving dinner is served every year for those involved in the fight against Huntington’s Disease.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
In 1987, we finally got a movie that was dedicated specifically to the holiday of Thanksgiving in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. John Hughes directed Steve Martin and John Candy as two very different personalities who are trying to get home to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. Martin is Neal Page, an upper-middle-class businessman, and Candy is Del Griffith, an artless misfit who Page can’t seem to get rid of. As their various modes of transportation fail for one reason or another, they become friends through adversity. Both a heartwarming family movie and a full-on comedy, the movie was a hit at the box office and a critical success. It instantly became a Thanksgiving staple, because everyone can find something to like about it.
The 1972 horror film Blood Freak is about a man who turns into a bloodthirsty giant monster… turkey. It was meant to be a Christian anti-drug film. The only actor with any experience in the movie was Steve Sipek (stage name: Steve Hawke), a porn actor who was trying to reinvent himself as Tarzan. During the filming of his second Tarzan movie in 1970, Sipek was badly burned while he was tied down on the set and a fire broke out. He was rescued by a trained lion. Burned over 90% of his body, Sipek was hospitalized for six months. In gratitude to the lion that saved him, he became a trainer and advocate for big cats. He turned his home into a big cat sanctuary in Florida. Sipek’s cats were confiscated just last month.
But back to 1972. Sipek desperately needed money, and partnered with Brad Grintner to write and direct Blood Freaks. Many of the amateurs who were hired for the film didn’t stay until the project was finished, but Sipek made sure the film was completed. It was terrible. Over time, Blood Freak became popular as a “so-bad-it's-good” film, and since the monster is a turkey, it naturally became a middle movie in your Thanksgiving film festival to cleanse the palate between sweet films about family holidays. Blood Freak can be seen at YouTube.
Miracle on 34th Street
Although the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street is the oldest of these four films, it is shown last in the festival because it is a transition from Thanksgiving to the Christmas season. The courtroom drama revolves around the true identity of Kris Kringle, played by Edmund Gwenn. However, the story opens on Thanksgiving Day, when Kringle replaces the Santa Claus who is too drunk to take his proper place in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Parade director Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) then hires Kringle to be Macy’s' Santa for the season. Meanwhile, Walker’s daughter Susan, played by 8-year-old Natalie Wood, doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. Walker’s neighbor, Fred Gailey (John Payne), is a lawyer who takes on Kringle as his client in the battle to prove he really is Santa Claus instead of just delusional.
The Thanksgiving parade scenes were filmed during the actual Macy's parade in 1946, with Gwenn riding in Santa’s sleigh, although few in the crowd knew it was him. The movie was released in June of 1947, so the holiday setting was kept a secret before the premiere. The reviews were good, although it was noted that there were no “stars” in the movie. With the passing of time, the movie is now full of stars. The appearance of Santa Claus at the very end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is a symbolic opening of the Christmas shopping season, and the movie Miracle on 34th Street can wrap up a Thanksgiving film festival with the same symbolic transition. It sure beats spending Thanksgiving Day shopping.
Alternate Selections (if you want more Thanksgiving movies)
Son in Law
Son in Law was a 1993 comedy of errors that showcased Pauly Shore’s zany persona that we came to know in the previous year’s Encino Man. A laid-back California dude named Crawl accompanies his college friend Becca (Carla Gugino) home to the family farm in South Dakota for Thanksgiving weekend. Her parents are at first horrified by Crawl and what school in California is doing to their daughter. Over the course of the holiday weekend, Crawl gets into various comedic situations, wins over the family, and saves Becca from an engagement to her high school sweetheart. An altogether lightweight film to fill a couple of hours if needed.
Nothing to do with Ronald Reagan, the film Dutch (1991) stars Ed O'Neill as a regular Joe on a road trip with his girlfriend’s spoiled son. The two disparate characters forge a relationship on the way home for Thanksgiving, which makes it seem like a rehash of Planes, Trains and Automobiles with a child. Dutch was a critical and box office flop that gained more of an audience on home video.