At the end of the year, I always love to delve into some of my favorite classic films that harmonize with the holiday season. From the likes of White Christmas (1954) to It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), there are so many films that celebrate the joy of the season and the goodness of humanity. Moreover, in addition to strong protagonists, many of these films also offer them some spiritual support–often in the form of an angel. In It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey has Clarence. In The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Dudley manifests in Henry Brougham’s life.
Breathing in elements of many classic holiday films, Tim Janis’s Buttons: A Christmas Tale (2019) not only introduces another protagonist, Annabelle (Alivia Clark), who is struggling to find peace in her own life, but also showcases a new angel in the form of an Unexpected Visitor (Dick Van Dyke).
This family-focused film depicts the story of Annabelle, who is born into a loving family and is a living miracle. She survives an illness that was expected to end her life and is able to spend much of her childhood in the care of her loving father and mother. However, as tragedies strike and leave Annabelle to face a world without her parents, the world is suddenly a much colder place. Annabelle finds little hope and happiness in her days to the point of merely existing in what seems to be a bitter environment.
Though Annabelle feels isolated, she is never quite alone. Rather, she is observed by her guardian angel who appears in her life during moments when she is at her lowest, helping her to maintain a positive outlook and to find and celebrate moments of joy in her life. Like the protagonists of past holiday classics, her angel is also unexpected and motivates her to live a life of love in an effort to restructure her world into one of warmth.
While the tale of Annabelle is at the core of the film, the film makes use of a mise en abyme or story within a story. Annabelle’s story is told in retrospect during the film’s present moment–a young girl named Emily (Noelle E. Parker), who is spending the holiday alone. Though she dreams of life with a loving family, she, too, is in danger of losing any sense of optimism about her life–until a woman named Rose (Angela Lansbury) comforts her and tells her the story of Annabelle.
The wholesome story itself is told in a charming way that can easily be understood and enjoyed by individuals of all ages. The plot is advanced by the inclusion of musical numbers, while also incorporating a familiar tune which classic film fans will recognize–“The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Similarly, fans of Golden Age Hollywood will delight in the performances of Van Dyke and Lansbury, who continue to be incredibly capable and brilliant in their roles to this day. Watching one of them perform is a treasure. Naturally, putting the two of them together is nothing short of moving to see and appreciate.
While enjoying the film, I also drew parallels from the performances in this film to past performances–particularly in the case of Van Dyke. There were fun homages along the way to some of his earlier films, whether intended or not. When Van Dyke’s character comforts Annabelle with “Keel A Smile on Your Face”, it is easy for me to reminisce about his iteration of “Put On A Happy Face” from his role in the play and film versions of Bye Bye Birdie (1963). Furthermore, his role in Mary Poppins (1964) comes to mind when his character in Buttons: A Christmas Tale is–yes–found dancing alongside a penguin.
Overall, Buttons: A Christmas Tale is a fine film to enjoy during the holiday season and, really, at any point in the year. The film is ideal for all ages and continues on the tradition of memorable holiday classics, in addition to pairing long-time, beloved talents alongside more contemporary actors to make a fine film.
Upon viewing the film, I was able to interview the film’s director, Tim Janis. For your enjoyment, our interview is published below.
Annette:What was the inspiration for the story?
Tim: I would say there are two inspirations that began Buttons: A Christmas Tale. One Sunday right after the Eucharist at church, I had the inspiration for the story, which I wrote down in rough form. The second inspiration was a song. I wrote a song in the film called “Keep A Smile on Your Face.” I sent it to Dick Van Dyke’s manager. Dick Van Dyke himself called me after I submitted the song directly. He said “Hey, we should do something with that song.” I was so surprised and happy. I am a huge Dick Van Dyke fan so you can imagine what an incredible moment this was. I have always been a big fan of the movie musicals so this film has been an amazing journey.
Annette: How did you become involved in the project?
Tim: We started the project–my wife Elizabeth, and I. We just stepped out and began. It took five years to make and there were a lot of times where we were finding our way.
Annette:When you began your work on the film, what were some of the challenges you faced?
Tim: I kept a book where I wrote down each miracle that occurred along the way. It’s over 40 pages long. There were so many challenges where you would just have to pray for a miracle. Sometimes the miracle was just a creative idea, other times it was one of the celebrities coming on board to help. With the film, we worked to benefit Kate Winslet’s Golden Hat Foundation and now, on it’s release, we are also benefiting St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.
Coming though all these challenges, we want the film to help with other’s challenges. So, the film’s story and the film’s purpose become one. A story of compassion, hope, and reaching out to others in need.
Annette: The film has such a wonderful cast who offer an array of moving performances. Is there a certain character with whom you identify?
Tim: I would say first that I live in the middle of all the characters. I am always wishing for more hope in my life. I am like the orphan’s in the film at times, in need of an angel and other times getting to be the Angel in someone’s life. Aside from that I have always loved the dancing in musicals. Dick Van Dyke’s youthful positive energy and dancing is so inspiring to me. Dick would always wear his soft shoes on set. He is just amazing. When we were on set the first time I will never forget when he said he felt like a 13-year-old kid. Wow–I think that is amazing.
Annette: Do you have a favorite memory or moment from the filming process that you would like to share?
Tim: There were so many but I think my favorite one was having Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke on set together. They started sharing memories together…there is just an incredible spark and magic in them both. They were both born in 1925, less than 2 months apart.
Annette: Since I am highly interested in classic Hollywood, I was especially delighted to view the performances of Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke. What was it like to work with two individuals who have had—and continue to enjoy—such long careers in entertainment?
Tim: I share your feelings about classic Hollywood. I was just reading a book about Lucille Ball’s career. In her book she talked about her first day at RKO studio and walking down the hall and seeing Angela Lansbury’s name on a door. That just amazes me. Both Dick and Angela represent a time in film that I love so much and I know people all over the world feel the same way. With Buttons, I tried to recreate that because I just want to honor these incredible Hollywood legends from an era I just love. When the film showed in the theaters last year for a one day event, we had a special tribute after the film to Gene Kelly. His wife Patrica Kelly did this segment from our standing set in Maine.
Working with Dick and Angela is breathtaking. They are such pros and it all happens so naturally. They just light up when the cameras are on. Dick never stopped singing on set. Always humming. I can’t say enough but, to me, having them both in the film is more than I could have ever imagined. It’s a dream come true.
Annette: In your opinion, why should audiences see the film?
Tim: It is like spending time with Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury. That personally makes me so happy. I love them both. This film is different I think. Because I just wanted to in my way honor all the legendary Hollywood movie musicals. Now to top it off that it was released by Paramount Pictures. I was so happy about that. What an amazing history Paramount has. The first day I went to the studio, I felt like I was going back in time. A perfect home for the film, Buttons: A Christmas Tale. Paramount has the film placed around other classics such as It’s A Wonderful Life and White Christmas I love those films. I have plans for two more films and they will all be a tribute to all of the Hollywood classics I love so much.
Annette: What do you believe is the overall message of Buttons: A Christmas Tale?
Tim: A story of compassion, hope, and reaching out to others in need.
Dr. Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is an avid scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.