#364) Peege (1972)
OR “Last Christmas”
Directed & Written by Randal Kleiser
Class of 2007
The Plot: Christmastime means one family’s annual visit to their grandmother Ethel, nickname “Peege” (Jeanette Nolan), in her nursing home. The entire family dreads this trip, unable to accept Peege’s deteriorating health. Mom’s (Barbara Rush) discomfort manifests itself as condescending remarks, Dad (William Schallert) fills the awkward silences with meaningless small talk, and grandsons Jerry and Damion (David Alan Bailey and Barry Livingston) seem disinterested and joke around. Only eldest grandson Greg (Bruce Davison) connects with Peege, reminding her of the happy times he spent with her growing up. I’m not crying you’re crying.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “extremely moving” and gives a brief synopsis.
But Does It Really?: While not the most recognizable of the NFR entries, “Peege” is certainly one of the most effective. As my friend Ryan put it, “[“Peege”] must be the movie they screen at Pixar when they teach how to make people cry.” The film hits its emotional core so honestly and directly you can’t help but be moved by it. I discovered “Peege” a few years before starting this blog (more on that later), and was happy to learn that another screening would be in my future. A yes for NFR inclusion from me, and definitely worth a viewing. Just keep the tissue handy.
Everybody Gets One: Randal Kleiser knew he wanted to be a film director after seeing “The Ten Commandments” as a child. As a grad student at USC, his original idea for his thesis film was about a theater troupe and time travel (don’t ask). Wanting to retain the film’s copyright (which would have gone to USC had he used their equipment), Kleiser opted for a less expensive, more personal film based on his annual visits to his grandmother (also nicknamed “Peege”) at her nursing home in Pennsylvania.
Wow, That’s Dated: The only majorly dated aspect of the film is Charles Albertine’s score, which has a real “Hallmark Hall of Fame” vibe to it. I imagine it’s the use of the flute for the film’s melancholy main theme that makes me feel this way.
Seriously, Oscars?: Completed in 1972, “Peege” played the festival circuit in search of a distributor, and found one in the recently created Phoenix Films (now Phoenix Learning Group). “Peege” started making the university and library rounds in late 1973, but whether or not it made an Oscar qualifying run in LA is unknown. That year’s winner for Live Action Short was something called “The Bolero”. Great, now I have that stuck in my head.
- Bruce Davison was already well known by 1972 for the film “Willard”. He loved the script for “Peege” so much he did the film for scale (plus a percentage of any profits). Jeanette Nolan was cast by chance: she was filming an episode of “Gunsmoke” at CBS Studios on the soundstage next door to the “Peege” production office (on loan from a TV movie that wrapped early). Ms. Nolan was 60 during production.
- The rest of the “Peege” family is populated with recognizable TV actors. Barbara Rush was Marsha Russell on “Peyton Place”, William Schallert was Poppo on “The Patty Duke Show”, and Barry Livingston was Ernie on “My Three Sons”. All three excel at getting to play more range here than on their respective TV shows.
- I’m a little confused as to which of the two parents is Peege’s child. I’m pretty sure it’s the dad, but they both call her Peege. Am I missing something?
- This family has the awkward part down pat. I have visited my share of dying relatives and it is always this uncomfortable. Not all of us have the luxury of escaping into sepia-tone flashbacks.
- Speaking of, did Greg grow up in the ‘30s? Every flashback looks like it comes from a “Waltons” episode.
- After years of character work on film and radio (most notably as Mrs. Bates), Jeanette Nolan finally shines as Peege. Rarely does an actress “of a certain age” get to play the main character, let alone at different stages of her life. Quite simply, Nolan is perfect as everyone’s grandmother (it helps that she looks remarkably like my maternal grandmother).
- My introduction to “Peege” was a 2015 screening of an original 16mm print at the Exploratorium (“Peege” shared the bill with “Cipher in the Snow” and “Stoned”). Curator Jesse Hawthorne introduced the film by stating: “You are not ready for ‘Peege’”. And boy was he right. Like my viewing for this post, I was a mess of tears by the end. My crying got its second wind when I went home and reflected on those I have lost in my life and how I did or didn’t connect with them at the end. It’s a cathartic experience, and I hope that “Peege” and I cross paths again further down the line.
- Randal Kleiser’s directing career took off after “Peege”; culminating in him landing the plum job of directing the film adaptation of “Grease”. His subsequent filmography includes such oddities as “The Blue Lagoon”, “Big Top Pee-Wee” and “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid”. With this many commercial films on his resume, it would be easy to write off Kleiser as a Hollywood day laborer, but then you see a film like “Peege” and recognize that he, like so many others on this list, is an artist. The next time you watch a big Hollywood “product”, check the director’s resume and find those smaller films that ignited their passion to tell stories.