Saturday, December 9, 2006

A Celluloid Christmas

I love sappy, sentimental movies, especially at Christmas. I freak out along with Donna Reed when Jimmy Stewart freaks out in It's a Wonderful Life. My holidays would be incomplete without watching Miracle on 34th Street. If I live to be a hundred, I'll never understand why those big galoots couldn't see that Edmund Gwynne really was Kris Kringle.

My mother read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at least ten times. Of all the books on her shelves, I remember that one the best. Mama took me to see the movie starring Dorothy McGuire and afterwards she told me, "That picture show was about making dreams come true."

There are other movies I love, and one that's not a Christmas film to anyone but me: Mayerling, the romantic portrayal of a royal love affair gone tragically awry.

I was reminded of the film when I was in Austria hoping for a Christmas snowfall, something we Southerners know little about. Arriving in Vienna five days before Christmas, it wasn't snowing, but it was plenty cold. I did touristy things, like buying gifts for my family even with the foregone conclusion that they were potential garage sale items.

I sighed and cried all through the performance of Swan Lake, and afterwards sashayed across Philharmoniker Strasse to the Hotel Sacher for a cup of Viennese coffee and a sacher-torte.

In short, my days and nights leading up to "C" Day were pleasantly full, with just one snag. I had nothing to do on the Eve of Christmas or on "C" Day itself. The Austrian merchants remain at home with their families, leaving only skeleton crews to take care of people like me.

That is why on Christmas Eve morning, I was feeling pitiful as I leafed through brochures in the empty hotel lobby. One of those brochures almost jumped out of the rack to do a song and dance routine for me. "Look at me! Ya! Ya!"

So what to my wandering eyes should appear but a notice for a Christmas Eve dinner in the Vienna Woods, culminating at midnight with Mass at Mayerling.

"Mayerling," I sighed breathlessly and showed the brochure to the one and only person manning the hotel. "Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve. So tragic and so ..."

The hotel person looked as though he might push the panic button under his desk.


I nodded vigorously and shoved the brochure under his nose.

"Mayerling," I said. "Ya?"

Smiling, and in perfect English, he told me there was one seat left on the bus to Mayerling. Could I be ready by four o'clock?

I rolled my eyes. "Ya! Ya!"

The bus was noisy. With so many nationalities on board, it sounded like a UN Summit. When we arrived at the quaint restaurant, it looked like Heidi (Shirley Temple) had decorated it in perfect old world charm. After a traditional dinner, we rode the bus to the bottom of a steep hill in the thick of the Vienna Woods.

It was close to midnight when our tour guide doled out lighted "torches" with instructions to walk single-file up the hill to the penitential convent for Mass. The convent, she said, had been the site of the hunting lodge where Crown Prince Rudolf (Omar Shariff) and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera (Catherine Deneuve) sealed their fate in a murder/suicide pact.

"The altar of the convent church," she continued, "stands over the very spot where the bodies were found, in what was once the Prince's bedroom."

A chorus of expected "oohs" and "aahhs" followed.

I had climbed almost to the top when I felt the first snowflake. I stopped and turned to look behind me. What I saw took away what was left of my breath. Dozens of flickering hand-held torches twisted and turned as they wound upwards in the otherwise black night. The only sounds to be heard were soft footstep crunches on the icy ground, and the gentle purring of falling snow. C.B.DeMille could not have staged it better.

At that moment, my romantic illusions of Rudolf and Mary and their tragic love affair all but disappeared. Gone were the visions of Omar and Catherine ... no longer available to cloud the memory of that sweet moment. (Well, maybe just a wee bit.) Those winding midnight torches etched themselves on my soul as though they were indestructible strips of celluloid.

Eat your heart out, C.B.

I long to take that journey again. No, my etchings haven't faded, but I'm itching to see the remake.

Till then, I will stroll the main street of St. Simons on the blackest of holiday nights, enjoy the blinking electric torches, and remember that special Midnight in Mayerling.

By Cappy Hall Rearick