A Slightly Obsessed Christmas Special!
A small confession: I’m not really big on Christmas movies. I truly love a handful of ‘em, but when it comes to the onslaught of treacly fare that assaults one’s viewing media every December, sticky sentiment and gooey emotion, en masse, I can do without.
SO! Being a bit more critical than I am usually wont on these pages, I’m gonna try to cast a gimlet eye over a yuletide selection of classic holiday flicks for each place on the advent calendar. We’ll start off slow and easy, with the Usual Holiday Suspects occupying the first dates, and then, I must warn you, things may get a little, um, WEIRD as we ascend the calendric scale to C-Day.
Maybe this Scrooge/Grinch will have a moment of self-reclamation, his heart growing three sizes by the 25th of December, when he realizes that he is actually blind to the shameless manipulation of the Hollywood syrup train and does in fact unabashedly adore Christmas movies of all dubious emotional validity…
Anyway, here’s hoping!
1st: MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET
(1947, 20TH Century Fox, dir. George Seaton)
I think many people would be surprised to learn that one of the most well-known Christmas movies was originally released in the middle of spring. 20th Century Fox head honcho Darryl F. Zanuck reasoned that less people attended movies during winter and they could get a bigger audience draw in warmer weather. Guess Mr. Zanuck was right, as Miracle on 34th Street went on to became a top box office hit in 1947, and has since been remade 5 times—3 times on TV, once as a Broadway musical, and the last being the 1994 theatrical version.
Otherwise, after seeing it about a bazillion times on TV and video tape growing up (I just recently saw it on DVD for the first time), Miracle is precisely the kind of perennial holiday favorite that’s difficult to judge on its own merits/demerits. This view round, enjoyed the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas Day setting and still-clever premise very much; the stodgy mid-40s camera set-ups and squarish staging somewhat less so. Also quite enjoyed the side performances of wonderful character actors like Porter Hall (the Hitler-mustachioed store ‘psychiatrist’), Percy Helton (the drunken Santa replaced on Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float), and Thelma Ritter (the harried mother who gives Santa ‘a good talking to’), but the wooden lead performances of Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, and young Natalie Wood (who were all better in other movies) left me a bit, um, flat.
Making the film eminently worthwhile, of course, is Edmund Gwenn as ol’ Kris Kringle, who combines old-world charm and an appropriate magical merriness with the slightest edge of moral outrage. Why not send shoppers to Gimbel’s? What’s wrong with adults and kids alike displaying a little imagination, if not faith? What’s happened to the spirit of Christmas in this age of crass commercialism? I suppose it’s the ultimate irony that the very symbol of Christmas’s commercial end—Santa Claus himself—is being used to rail against 30 days of unbridled capitalism, but hey, that’s Hollywood!
2nd: BELLS OF ST. MARY’S
(1945, Rainbow Productions, dir. Leo McCarey)
Unlike the previous yuletide selection, our second place on the movie advent calendar actually was released during the Christmas season (in fact, it’s the movie playing at the local theatre as George Bailey, with a marked excess of Christmas cheer, famously runs through his little town screaming, “Hello, Bedford Falls! Merry Christmas, movie house!” etc.), but near as I could ever tell has very little to do with the season or Christmas. It concerns a priest played by Bing Crosby, one “Father O’Malley” (the same character Bing played in a movie released the previous year called Going My Way), who comes as principal to a failing Catholic school in New York City. There, Father Bing’s lackadaisical, laissez-faireapproach to education comes in (mild) conflict with the (ever-so-slightly) more stern and authoritative views of “Sister Mary Benedict,” the teachers’ supervising nun played by Ingrid Bergman. (Basically, Sister Mary actually wants to hold students accountable for their academic progress while Father Bing would just prefer to give ‘em recess all day. Yay for Bing!)
One sequence in the movie does relate to Christmas and involves the youngest kids in the school rehearsing a Nativity Play. It’s a variation on a scene Bing and director McCarey made the year before with the warbling troubadour leading a boy’s choir in Going My Way, and one director McCarey would return to a decade later where Deborah Kerr conducts a children’s recital in An Affair to Remember(1957). This is by far the most successful of the three, as in this case the kids are not being lead by an adult—Sister Mary wisely lets the pre-literate youngsters make-up their own scenario as they go along—and the resulting mistakes and accidents make the scene seem more natural and spontaneous. It’s a charming passage, largely because it plays like actual children—and not over-polished child performers—AT play.
Otherwise, in trying to figure out how in heck this movie relates to Christmas, it later occurred to me two main conflicts in the movie could perhaps be seen from a more Christmas point of view. The first involves a Scrooge-like businessman with the unlikely-sounding name of “Horace P. Bogardus,” played by Henry Travers (“Clarence the Angel” from It’s a Wonderful Life), who wants to bulldoze the school and turn it into a parking lot for the block of modern office buildings he’s built next door. His inevitable change of heart and spiritual reclamation is, of course, straight out of Dickens and is much in keeping with the spirit of Christmastime. And finally, the low-key rivalry between priest and nun gets the glossy, gloriously over-lit Hollywood treatment in a soul-stirringly climactic moment when Father Bing reveals to Sister Mary that she’s not being sent away from the school because of incompetence or intransigence, but because she has a slight touch of tuberculosis(!)…
Ah yes, the curious morality of Hollywood, but still, one can’t help but feel a warm Christmas-y glow, in spite of oneself, in direct proportion to the beatific effulgence of 3-point source lighting reflected off the saintly-contoured countenances of two of classic Hollywood’s biggest stars.
3rd: A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS
(December 9 1965, CBS, dir. Bill Melendez)
“Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”
I actually wanted to save this one for a bit later, but, as the saying goes, one’s best-laid plans “gang aft agley.” So as self-reward for a rather trying retail season (I tend to think of myself as what happened to Charlie Brown when he grew up), decided to treat myself to 25 minutes of Peanuts-style bittersweet bliss as we commence upon the frenzied shopping spree that counter-intuitively signals our approach on the Christmas season! Yeah, it was a good choice…
And really, I don’t have much more to say about it than that. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that what Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was to the 19th century, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is to the 20th. (Which century are we now? Oh, that’s right: “Who cares.”) Where Dickens created a charitable, family-oriented holiday for a period of great social injustice, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz warned against commercialism and the worship of the almighty buck; both re-defined the meaning of Christmas and made it relevant for its time.
From the opening ice-skating passage to Charlie Brown rescuing his scraggly little tree (I’m sure that since then every Christmas tree lot is sure to carry a “Charlie Brown tree” or two) there are simply too many memorable scenes/moments to recount, but the showstopper is undoubtedly Linus asking for a spotlight in the school auditorium and reciting Luke 2: 8-14, “…And that’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.” Personally, I just LOVE that this quietly rebellious moment has slipped under most viewers’ radars and, moreover, that a Bible verse has been annually recited on network television for the past 49 years!
Finally, debated with myself whether or not to include a holiday TV special on a movie website, but figured, hey, it’s mopey Charlie Brown, Snoopy as the world’s most fanciful Beagle, bossy Lucy, moody Schroeder, and all the rest jivin’ and boppin’ to Vince Guaraldi’s immortal jazz-inflected holiday score: So yeah, how could one not include it on a self-respecting Christmas movie list?
4th: A CHRISTMAS STORY
(1983, MGM, dir. Bob Clark)
“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”–cue Santa’s crushing black boot
OK, folks, the granddaddy of ‘em all, the big one, the queen-mother of all Christmas movies—and a veritable cornucopia of yuletide hilarity to boot—yes, friends, it’s A Christmas Story. What with 24 hour marathon showings season-round, little Ralphie Parker’s unwavering quest to receive for Christmas a “Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock (and this thing which tells time)” has undoubtedly entered public lore.
And deservedly so! Springing forth from the fecund imagination of humorist Jean Parker Shepherd, known to his legions of fans simply as “Shep,” the trademarked homespun voice and jovial chuckle of radio’s most familiar nostalgic raconteur provide, as narration, the perfect tone of gentle irony for mock-heroic ‘reminiscences’of elaborately-spun tall tales about growing up in the Midwest. Drawn from about 30 years of Christmas Eve broadcasts on New York City’s WOR-AM, these immortal stories include “Flick’s Tongue,” “The Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring,” and, most (in)famously, “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award That Heralded The Birth of Pop Art; or, The Battle Over the Leg Lamp”(!)…
Mostly, I think, the movie endures year after year (after year…) ‘cos it’s all so darned relatable. The Old Man in the basement swearing at the furnace (“My Old Man was one of the most feared furnace fighters in Northern Indiana”), the mother boiling any and all taste out of indistinguishable meat and/or vegetable stews (“Starving people would be happy to have that!”), the bratty kid brother “who hasn’t eaten voluntarily in 5 years” (“Meatloaf, smeatloaf,double-beatloaf… I hate meatloaf!”); as a keen-eyed portrait of a functionally-dysfunctional family around the holidays, Shep’s cool cynicism is always tempered with a dash of warm cheer at its heart.
Yeah, Ralphie does (almost) shoot his eye out, but still, his Old Man came through in the end, didn’t he?
5th: THE BISHOP’S WIFE
(1947, Samuel Goldwyn Productions, dir. Henry Koster)
And so in the vein of The Bell’s of St. Mary’s we have yet another harmless piece of Hollywood fluff… Or is it? Cary Grant plays an angel who answers the prayer of an Episcopalian Bishop (David Niven) who is seeking “guidance” regarding the construction of an elaborate cathedral. But rather than help build the new church, “Dudley,” as the angel makes himself known, instead proceeds to insinuate himself in the lives of everyone around the Bishop—including the Bishop’s semi-neglected wife (Loretta Young).
Using The Bells of St. Mary’s as comparison, again, the filmmakers were especially careful in the former to avoid any question of romantic tension between priest and nun, while still allowing enough chemistry between the performers to make the relationship interesting; but here, director Koster (and uncredited screenwriters Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder) seem to have no such compunction about letting the sparks fly between the Angel and the Bishop’s Wife (thus the title).
This is especially evident in the film’s famous ice-skating scene, where the pair gliding effortlessly ‘round the rink (as if floating on air!) seems absolutely dripping in gooey romantic sentiment. Is the Angel merely trying to provoke jealousy in the Bishop, thus inspiring him to become a more attentive husband, or has he become genuinely attached? Can’t say exactly (most modern viewers, I think, will probably say the latter), but even remotely hinting at an un-platonic interest between the spouse of a clergyman and a representation of the divine is rather outré for a Classic Hollywood movie.
Oh, did I forget to mention this is all happening around Christmastime? Yeah…
6th: HOLIDAY INN
(1942, Paramount, dir. Mark Sandrich)/WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954, Paramount, dir. Michael Curtiz)
Did a Jewish songwriter and a warbling troubadour invent the modern, secularized institution known as “Christmas”? Dunno, but the Irving Berlin-penned, Bing Crosby-sung ‘ditty’ remains the most-covered Christmas song ever written, and Crosby’s original recording the best-selling single of all time.
Introduced on Bing’s radio show on Christmas Day 1941, the song was further popularized a few months later with the release of the Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire musical, Holiday Inn. Bing & Fred play a pair of nightclub performers who go their separate ways when Bing decides to “take it easy” by turning an old Connecticut farm he owns into a musical theatre called “Holiday Inn.” The twist is that the “Inn” is only open on the Holidays. Each musical number in the movie, then, celebrates a different holiday—New Year’s, Lincoln’s Birthday, Valentine’s, etc.—with elaborate performance routines built around specially-written Irving Berlin tunes. And guess which song celebrates Christmas?
A decade later Bing—minus Fred Astaire; but plus Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen—returned to the basic premise of Holiday Inn, but expanded the scope and scale of the original—literally and thematically—with VistaVision, Technicolor, Perspecta (multi-channel sound), and a deeper backstory involving a pair of performers staging a gala Christmas benefit for their WWII commanding officer (Dean Jagger). And this time the title song takes center stage, quite literally, in one of the most memorable movie musical sequences bar-none, in which the entire backstage gives way to reveal a Vermont landscape covered in gently-falling white stuff. White Christmas is quite simply the ne plus ultra of glossy, gloppy Hollywood-ized holiday fare and, as such, has made essential Christmastime viewing for the past 60 years. ‘Nuff said!
“…And may all your Christmases be white.”
Never heard of/seen Holiday Inn? Not surprising. Even though it’s the movie that introduced possibly the most popular song of modern times, and a crackerjack of a great musical to boot, it’s rarely shown on TV un-cut and was unavailable for years on any home-viewing format. Why, you might ask? Well, quite simply, the song sequence celebrating Lincoln’s Birthday, “Abraham,” is performed by white performers—including Bing Crosby and co-star Marjorie Reynolds—in blackface. Yes, what was originally intended as heartfelt tribute to the president that freed the slaves now looks pretty awful and embarrassing in retrospect…
The curious part about all this is there’s a similar sequence in White Christmas—a tribute to the blackface minstrel entertainers of old called “Mandy”—which is actually performed sans blackface. One presumes that racial sensitivity progressed in a dozen years (1942 to 1954) to the point where white performers making their faces up with greasepaint and tar had since been deemed as maybe being a *tad* offensive.
Once upon a time, TCM regularly showed the 1942 movie un-cut but I don’t believe have played it much in recent years. A shame. Fred’s 4th of July firecrackers dance sequence is one of my all-time favorites—director Sandrich had helmed most of the Astaire/Rogers pictures at RKO and knew the best way to film Astaire was to simply let ‘im go in uninterrupted long shots, with the camera just gliding along. And Bing’s scenes at the end on the Hollywood set ‘re-creating’ his inn is especially interesting as it seems like they’re cheekily playing on the whole artificiality of a Hollywood musical, yet still managing to wring genuine sentiment out of the song and situation. Only Bing and an Irving Berlin tune could pull off a feat like that! Some actually rate Holiday Inn above White Christmas and I’m inclined to agree.
7th: CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT
(1945, Warner Brothers, dir. Peter Godfrey)
The Hollywood syrup train continues with this bit of holiday fluff, released a couple days before VJ-Day (and a couple days after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) on August 11, 1945. As we progress with this list, I think we’ll find a rather strange phenomenon: a marked concentration of holiday fare made during and (slightly) after World War II. Basically, then, and for whatever reason, the floodgates were then-opening on seasonal fare not-titled A Christmas Carol and, of course, played against a contemporary setting.
And really, that curious coincidence, along with its sociological underpinnings, is about as far as my interest extends to this innocuous but ultimately bland piece of seasonal entertainment. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, and supported by a quite impressive cast of character actors (including S.Z. Sakall, Una O’Connor, and the great Sydney Greenstreet), the story is a mostly contrived affair concerning a single working woman and career journalist (Stanwyck) trying to pass herself off as a traditional model housewife during a Christmas weekend get-together in the country. It’s basically a kind of proto-sitcom; the elaborate deceptions, farcical situations, and broad tone indicating the direction mass entertainment would take in postwar America. (The only thing missing is the commercials.) Many people like this movie, and I’m glad they do, but it’s essentially a harmless piece of time-filler that may serve to get one in an appropriately festive mood on the countdown to C-Day.
As such, fills a perfect seventh place on a cinematic advent calendar with now eighteen left to go!
8th: HOLIDAY AFFAIR
(December 24th, 1949, RKO, dir. Don Hartman)
Well, heck: a Christmas movie released on Christmas! Yup, Holiday Affair bucked the trend of yuletide fare being dumped in the middle of summer and instead decided to trade itself on the spirit and good will of the actual season in question. Starring Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh (along with eternal also-ran Wendell Corey, who pretty much deserves to be mentioned in parentheses), the movie came out just a few months after Mitchum had served a jail term for marijuana possession. A rather lightweight ‘affair,’ the movie was a decided change of pace for the roguish Mitchum, who up to then had done primarily hard-lined war movies like The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and crime melodramas like Out of the Past (1947).
So a sweet-natured romantic comedy about a 3-cornered romance between a single mother, an underemployed ne’er-do-well, and a stuffy junior executive type over the course of a holiday weekend was quite the departure.
And regarding that ‘ne’er-do-well,’ I’m thinking it’s due to the presence of Mitchum himself that the film gains a distinct edge over the usual syrupy romantic schmaltz that passed itself off as holiday entertainment back in its heyday. I won’t try to stretch the point here, but there is a backbone of reality to the light comedy goings-on—a pretty young woman trying to survive in the big city with a kid in tow, a kid growing up without a dad, an unconventional young guy who disrupts the woman’s carefully-laid plans for the safety and security of marriage to a stiff-necked bore—that at times lends the film an almost noir-ish quality… For a Christmas romance, that is.
9th: REMEMBER THE NIGHT
(1940, Paramount, dir. Mitchell Leisen)
From the click-clacking typewriter (I was gonna say ‘pen’) of Preston Sturges, then Classic Hollywood’s greatest writer of screen comedies, comes this offbeat mix of seasonal sentiment, heartfelt romance, and light screwball. This was also the first film to pair Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray–who would go on to essay the murderous black widow and ambitious heel who sexually devour each other a scant four years later in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (!).
Here, Stanwyck plays a light-fingered (and light-, uh, ‘moral-ed’) petty thief who, as the film opens, is caught shoplifting at an exclusive New York jewelry store. MacMurray plays the Assistant D.A. who gets the unenviable task of prosecuting a pretty woman (this is 1940, remember) the day before Christmas. So he (wisely) engineers a postponement ’til after the holidays.
Then, in the first of a series of romance-deepening reversals, the initially hard-hearted D.A. posts bail so this wayward “dame” of loose morals isn’t celebrating Christmas behind bars. A couplethree screwball complications on and our D.A. finds out this tough-talkin’, hard-livin’ city gal is actually a fellow native of that great middle-western state of Indiana: Yipyip, another Hoosier! (“Well, fancy that!”)
In the spirit of the season, then—and perhaps in the spirit of something a bit more—D.A. Fred, the Hoosier lawyer, invites his fellow Indianan down to the family farm for an old-fashioned rural Christmas with his mother, aunt, and cousin (Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson, Sterling Holloway). What follows is a charming idyll in the country—chock full of carol-singing, sleigh-riding, and barn-dancing—that inexorably creeps towards its bittersweet end when both must buck up to the realities of their respective roles in the big city…
Well, I went on a bit with the ol’ plot description there ‘cos for a Classic Hollywood romantic weepie, “it’s all in the story.” Sturges, whose last film as writer this was before moving on to a career nonpareil as “writer-director,” wisely chose to emphasize the sticky holiday sentiment and subtle accumulation of cheery Christmastime detail before springing one WALLOP of a finish on his audience. Indeed, this ending, I’d say, wholly qualifies as warmly and quietly “devastating,” in the best possible spirit of the season, and, as such, is entirely unique in the annals of many a Hollywood romance’s “Happy Ending.”
10th: BACHELOR MOTHER/THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK
(1939, RKO, dir. Garson Kanin)/(1944, Paramount, dir. Preston Sturges)
A double dose of droll duplicity for our number tenth spot, courtesy of two great comedy directors slipping one by the Hays Office. (The Hays Office, as a reminder, was classic-era Hollywood’s self-censorship board… Basically the institutional equivalent of two harmless old biddies sitting in a movie theater wearing lace collars and horn-rimmed spectacles clucking their tongues disapprovingly when characters on-screen used vaguely ‘off-color’ phrases like “darn it all!” or “gee whiz!”)
Lest we forget the entire season is inspired by the miraculous birth of a special child—and aren’t all births miracles, and all children special?—Kanin and Sturges comically court blasphemy by depicting a pair of unwanted pregnancies ‘round the holidays.
In Bachelor Mother, Ginger Rogers actually isn’t the mother in question, but after bringing in a baby she finds crying on the steps of an orphanage (basket and all!), she is immediately mistaken for such. The social workers contact her employer, a big New York department store, who discover this “unwed mother” has recently been given notice for discharge at the end of the Christmas shopping season. Comic complications ensue, and mistaken assumptions proceed apace, and soon our bewildered “spinster surrogate” is hired back on the job permanent and full-time—with a nice fat raise, a furnished apartment, and even the noble and well-intentioned romantic attentions of the boss’s son (David Niven)!
I won’t ruin it for ya, but the ending is absolutely priceless—and perfectly illustrates the sheer ridiculousness of the ‘morality,’ or its lacking, behind both condemning OR ‘redeeming’ a “fallen woman.”
By now you’ve probably guessed the nature of the “miracle” in Preston Sturges’s The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, but even if you have, you won’t be prepared for the twists, turns, and general gobsmackery the all-time master of screwball silliness has up his sleeve.
It’s wartime, and a small-town, all-American girl (Betty Hutton) considers it her patriotic duty to show the boys “a good time” before they ship off to certain danger and possible death… NINE MONTHS after a night of drunkenly forgotten revelry—in which she was apparently ‘married,’ under an assumed name, to a soldier named “Ratzkywatzky” (or was it “Zitskiwitski”?)—it’s CHRISTMAS EVE, and even the heretofore frantic efforts of her blustering cop father (William Demarest), her conniving Lady Macbeth of a 14-year-old sister (Diana Lynn), and, especially, the increasingly desperate acts of the lovelorn and hopelessly devoted local 4-F (“The spots!”; Eddie Bracken) have been woefully insufficient to extricate poor, ‘in-trouble’ “Trudi Kockenlocker” (gotta love those Sturges names!) from the condemning castigation of small-town, middle-American hypocrisy.
So, on this holiest of nights, it’s a trademark Sturges WALLOP to the rescue! Again, won’t ruin it for ya, but will instead leave y’all this morning with the immortal words of the Swan of Avon: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
11th: MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS
(1944, MGM, dir. Vincente Minnelli)
Actually wrote about this sterling piece of Hollywood Americana a few weeks back as a Halloween movie, but Vincente Minnelli’s classic Technicolor musical (which many consider the best musical ever made) makes great viewing on just about any day of the old calendar—and not just an advent one. Again, chronicling a year in the lives of the “Smith” family of St. Louis—culminating in the 1904 World’s Fair held in that ‘fair’ city—this ever-delightful film is divided into four equally delightful sections, each detailing one eventful day for the family in all the four seasons.
The third section, “Winter – 1903,” commences, appropriately, on the morning of Christmas Eve. The Smith children—Lon, Rose, Esther, Agnes, and “Tootie”—are gathered on their snow-covered front lawn making snowpeople of their entire family—which also includes Mother, Father, “Grampaw,” and the maid, “Katie.”
Later that evening, after some romantic complications over a grand Christmas Eve Ball naturally untangle themselves (dance scenes, I must add, were a specialty of director Minnelli, who reveled in tracking waltzing performers with his swirling camera), the middle sister, Esther (Judy Garland), comes home to find her youngest sister, “Tootie” (Margaret O’Brien), upstairs in the attic, bawling her eyes out over the family’s imminent relocation from their warm, spacious home in St. Louis to a cold, crowded New York City “tenement” (the maid, Katie’s, description, not mine!)… Worst of all, they’re gonna miss the World’s Fair!
So, then, this is the immortal screen moment when Judy Garland picks up a music box, inflects those velvet-toned vocal cords of hers, and introduces the all-time classic Christmas song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
I’ve used the word a lot in these write-ups, but the scene and song are the very definition of the word “bittersweet”—which, I suppose, is undoubtedly the most appropriate word for a season that, for many, is equal parts joy and melancholy. The scene, song, and movie has a happy outcome (well, after Terrible “Tootie” rushes out into the cold night and symbolically destroys the “family” of snowpeople, that is…) but I’d like to leave it there, with the sisters peering out from the attic window onto the winter scene below. To me, that’s what Christmas is all about, and this moment perfectly captures it!
12th: ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS
(1955, Universal, dir. Douglas Sirk)
Was gonna write-up a final sap-dripping romantic weepie this morning, but instead decided to throw the gauntlet down on seasonal sentiment here before the latter part of this list deepens and darkens to gradual oblivion! It’s, whaddyacallit, a “transition.” ‘Cos on the surface we have in All That Heaven Allows yet another piece of Hollywood fluff, but this is Douglas Sirk, with whom surface appearances are always deceiving…
Here we have a wealthy widow (Jane Wyman) with two grown kids and a big beautiful house in picturesque MassaConnectiMont. She’s looking out her ginormous bay window onto a New England winter scene of gently falling snow, passing sleighs, and street carolers trudging up and down the well-worn path. Is this a scene of contentment and warm holiday cheer? Of course not, as her children, friends, well-wishers, acquaintances—all her social milieu, it seems—consider the young outdoorsman she has fallen in love with (Rock Hudson), a carefree spirit who introduced her to a simpler and more fulfilling style of life, to be “unsuitable.”
So she gave him up. And now it’s Christmas and she’s alone in her big house and the only thing to keep her company is a television, “the lonely widow’s companion,” her thoughtless kids had delivered that very morning. She sits down on the couch and looks at the empty box and as her reflection stares back perceives the years passing away within and now realizes precisely what she’s been given for Christmas this year: a tomb!
Director Sirk, who had a career in his native Germany as a theatre and film director before emigrating to America at the beginning of World War II, made low-budget exploitation films, thrillers, light comedies, and even Westerns in Hollywood before settling into a series of elaborate, overwrought romantic melodramas for Universal during the mid- to late-50s. (If unfamiliar with his films, you might remember the name from Vincent Vega in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction ordering a “Douglas Sirk steak” at the garish 50s nostalgia cafe, Jack Rabbit Slim’s, “bloody as hell.”)
Featuring quietly devastating performances from actresses then-gently past their prime such as Jane Wyman, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lana Turner—paired with lantern-jawed, stalwart leading men like Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, and John Gavin—Douglas Sirk movies of the 1950s—which include All I Desire(1953), Magnificent Obsession (1954), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959)—were actually quite subversive social commentaries on repression and desire disguised as “women’s weepies.” Vivid color photography, sweeping musical scores, and gorgeous set design, with their plastic sheen and glimmering surfaces, elevated ostensible soap operas to high art, their aesthetics acting as ironic counterpoint to characters, especially women, splitting apart at the seams, emotionally, while fruitlessly attempting to follow the hollow dictates of “social propriety”.
All That Heaven Allows, which directly inspired both Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul(1974) and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), is possibly Sirk’s masterpiece largely due, I believe, to the scene described above: to take the most family-oriented of holidays and, with every tool at a filmmaker’s disposal, make that Christmas as picturesque and beautiful as cinematically possible—in other words, sheer visual perfection—and then, contextual to the inner dramatics of the scene, strip away all those layers of surface beauty to reveal bitter depths of disappointment and loneliness. With All That Heaven Allows, and particularly in this equal parts visual and thematic screen passage, achieved a high watermark of a vision, realized entirely within the system it was criticizing, that essentially put the lie to the “nifty fifties.”
Reconsidering one of those Madison Avenue images circa 1955 of the kids opening presents ’round the Christmas tree, square-jawed Dad contentedly smoking his pipe in the easy chair, and Mom beaming beatifically while vacuuming up pine needles from the green shag carpet, director Douglas Sirk might invite its viewer to imagine the possible discontentment lurking just beneath the surface of such an idyllic Christmas scene!
13th: SINCE YOU WENT AWAY/THE RECKLESS MOMENT
(1944, Selznick Intl. Pic., dir. John Cromwell)/(1949, Columbia, dir. Max Ophüls)
Hoo-kay, for our thirteenth entry we have a WWII multi-character romance and a postwar melodrama. What do they have in common? Well, besides Christmas (otherwise they wouldn’t be on this list, obviously) they’re both, following on last week’s discussion on Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, about women in desperate circumstances.
Since You Went Away was producer David O. Selznick’s attempt to yet again touch off some of the romantic ‘sparks’ set ablaze by his, um, *other* wartime romance, Gone With The Wind (I guess the main problem being, re. ‘sparks,’ that he couldn’t find narrative justification to burn down Atlanta in ALL his movies). GWTW proved, time and again for Selznick, an impossible act to follow, but director Cromwell—aided by vivid, painterly B/W cinematography from Lee Garmes & Stanley Cortez; along with another sweeping Max Steiner score—give it the old epic try.
Detailing a year of separation between a husband (off in the service and never seen on-screen) and a wife (Claudette Colbert), who’s left behind to “keep the home fires burning,” the movie centers on a tragic romance between a young G.I. (Robert Walker) and the couple’s teenage daughter (Jennifer Jones). It’s a tear-jerker, but the film’s climactic (and much parodied) moment, a farewell scene between the young lovers at a railway station, may still very well cause a lump (or two) to rise in one’s throat, and the film’s conclusion, set on Christmas Eve, is emotionally satisfying in the best classic Hollywood sense. Perhaps at nearly 3 hours the film was, as contemporary reviewer James Agee noted, “much ado about nothing,” but I don’t think you’ll find another film from this period that so carefully delineates the cares and anxieties of women in wartime.
The Reckless Moment is the other side of the coin. One of two film noirs director Max Ophüls made with James Mason in 1949, it, like Since You Went Away, similarly features a wife (Joan Bennett) dealing with a period of separation from her husband. The difference here being that their teenage daughter (Geraldine Brooks) isn’t nearly quite so innocent and has gotten herself involved with a predatory heel (Shepperd Strudwick) looking for a little quickly extorted cash. Well, the word ‘noir’ might tip you off to what happens next and, a few dark twists and turns later, the creep is dead, the police suspect foul play… and the mother soon finds herself on the money-losing end of a blackmail scheme exacted by a representative (Mason) of a shady loan company to which the dead man owed money.
Oh, and did I mention this is all happening over a Christmas weekend? A pity more filmmakers don’t take advantage of the holidays for their thrillers, as periods of celebration tend to ratchet up the tension all the more, and works especially well for this one: ‘cos, on a basic level, how in heck are you supposed to raise money when all the banks are closed?
14th: THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR
(1975, Paramount, dir. Sydney Pollack)
Piggybacking on the latter half of the last entry, we have s’more extreme holiday tension for y’all this fine morning. My personal favorite among the Watergate-era paranoid thrillers, Robert Redford stars as a “reader” who goes out for lunch one drizzly afternoon and returns to find all his co-workers shot fulla holes—murdered, execution-style. Why? Well, it turns out his office, under the guise of a “literary society,” is actually operating for the CIA—breaking secret codes from published material all around the world. And it also turns out our “reader,” codename of “Condor” (who was literally “out to lunch”), has filed a potentially explosive report uncovering a rogue organization “within the CIA” covertly planning invasions on Middle Eastern oil fields. That organization? His goldurned superiors!
Yeah, this is a fun one, and is all the more nail-biting as it’s happening a couple days before Christmas! The 70s were a great time for realism in the movies, and this one is far removed from the James Bond model of spy story while still being entertaining in the conventional sense—romance (Faye Dunaway), guns, assassins (Max von Sydow!) and deception, sure; but all played out against our expectations, and more or less as you’d expect in gritty “reality.” Happy Holidays, Mr. Condor!
A third of the way through the movie Redford, as “Condor,” takes a random young woman—played, again, by Faye Dunaway—’hostage’ in the flurried events following the first attempt by The Organization to take his life. Originally titled Seven Days of the Condor, director Pollack and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. condensed the action of the movie to a little over a weekend, choosing to focus on the trust, romantic relationship, and even complicity that develops between the kidnapper and his victim.
If one is intent on over-thinking it, one could see the de rigeur plot development as putting a positive spin on Stockholm Syndrome, along with then-contemporary accounts of kidnapping victim-turned-outlaw Patty Hearst, but I think despite the greater realism the film espouses, one is more likely, as a film viewer, to simply accept the device in the context of Girls Friday that, of narrative expediency, “humanize” the actions of the spy-hero protagonist. Put another way, an audience has certain expectations of these masculine cloak-and-dagger types, even if he is a glasses-wearing bookworm familiar with obscure Dick Tracy storylines and Middle Eastern thrillers, and a spy story without a feminine aider-and-abettor, even if she is a moody and depressive Diane Arbus-like photographer of bleak and autumnal landscapes, would be like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the PB or J. (I mean, what’s Bond without his Girl, right?)
So yeah, it’s a movie, and gritty realism or Bond-inspired escapism aside, Dunaway’s character memorably self-applying a compound term I probably shouldn’t mention on this website (it basically means “one who gives comfort to the enemy”) shows that we, as viewers, probably shouldn’t take such matters so seriously. Good will towards men AND women, I suppose!
(1984, Amblin/Warner Bros., dir. Joe Dante)
I was 7 in the summer of 1984 and our mom was a bit overprotective about the movie fare us kids saw. Fooled by cute ads of a little furry creature wearing a Santa hat, we entered the multiplex entirely unprepared for the blender-churning, microwave-exploding, theatre-incinerating delights that awaited… Yup, I thought it was pretty cool.
As contemporary reviewers were quick to note, Joe Dante’s mix of warm seasonal sentiment and monstrous mayhem is kinda “It’s a Wonderful Life meets The Blob.” I think we can dispense with the plot reiteration here and skip on to the gremlins themselves. Gleefully mischievous creatures with razor-sharp teeth, green scaly skin and talon-like claws, these little monsters could simply tear the crap out of nearly every movie I’ve mentioned heretofore on this list. (And if you think of the scene where they tear the movie screen down during a showing of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they literally do!) So as I’ve been re-watching many of these Christmas movies night after night and one or two has gotten a mite sticky with the old syrup I’ve invariably thought to myself, “You know what this movie could really use right about now? A Gremlins Invasion!” As such, Gremlins makes perfect viewing ‘round the holidays for those of us that just can’t ‘stick’ the usual holiday fare.
Screenwriter Chris Columbus, who would go on to write Goonies (1985) and direct Home Alone (1989) and the first Harry Potter movies (1999, 2000), sold a script to producer Steven Spielberg that was originally even darker than what was eventually marketed, successfully/unsuccessfully, as a family-friendly, cute-creature feature. Jettisoning the elements of dismemberment, decapitation, and debauchery that peppered the original script through multiple, script-sanitizing drafts, what ended up appearing on-screen, though, was still wild & wooly enough to give many a 7-year-old (including myself) nightmares for many months to come!
(Though the film’s most controversial moment, when Phoebe Cates as “Kate” recounts the fate of her father dressing up as Santa one Christmas and becoming fatally stuck while climbing down the chimney, is left entirely to the audience’s imagination… Perhaps being all the more terrifying for it!)
This film, along with Spielberg’s Temple of Doom, directly caused the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to re-think their rating system and, later that summer, to introduce their new PG-13 rating. Though I wouldn’t trade my childhood viewing of the film for the world—it was, as stated above, one of the highlights of my youthful moviegoing experiences—I might perhaps think twice today before introducing it to my two young nephews!
16th: WILD AT HEART/BRAZIL
(1990, Propaganda Films, dir. David Lynch)/(1985, Embassy Intl. Pic., dir. Terry Gilliam)
An eternal Christmas! A yuletide without end! Everyday a merry holiday! Sounds nice, huh? Well, hmm, maybe not…
“She’s Marilyn, he’s Elvis, and this is Oz.”
Laid one yellow brick at a time, Lula (Laura Dern) and Sailor (Nicolas Cage) are young lovers on the run in David Lynch’s road trip through American Hell. One of the many detours along their Yellow Brick Road is Lula’s cautionary tale of “Cousin ‘Jingle’ Dell” (Crispin Glover), a Santa Claus-impersonator so full of holiday cheer that he insists on celebrating Christmas the whole darned year! Well, even a cursory attempt to describe a typical Lynchian scene would probably not be a good idea on a family-friendly website, but suffice it to say that in the annals of “bad ideas”, an excess of Christmas spirit may be chief among them.
“Consumers for Christ!”
Making an even stronger case for Christmas being only one day a year is Terry Gilliam’s bureaucratic dystopian nightmare, in which it has been government-mandated that everyday be Santa Day. So, as terrorists blow-up every building in sight in order to put a stop to the endless shopping spree, sinister Orwellian organizations like “INFORMATION RETRIEVAL” endeavor to keep the spirit of Christmas going the whole year round through a merry program of kidnapping, torture, and “deletion.” HO HO HO!
Frankly, could not resist making a few darker recommendations for holiday viewing this Christmas season. I mean, if Die Hard (1988) and Batman Returns (1992) frequently make the social media rounds these jaded days this time of year, why not re-think the pantheon of family-unfriendly fare by acknowledging a few other vaguely-inappropriate suggestions? I couldn’t imagine the circumstances under which these choices would possibly make-up a double-bill viewing as “the stockings are hung by the chimney with care,” but hey, these are great movies, and if the prospect of viewing Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life for the umpteenth time has got you down, maybe it’s time to try something a little, um, different…
17th: PANDORA’S BOX
(1929, Nero Film-AG, dir. G.W. Pabst)
“8 Akte”: It’s Christmas Eve and a lone, dejected figure (Gustav Diessl) emerges from the London fog as a nearby Salvation Army band plays God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. A pretty officer from the group approaches the sad man and asks, “How can we help you, brother?” He looks away and answers, “You can’t.” She hands him a twig of holly, which he silently thanks her for before disappearing back into the fog… Walking down a dark alley, the man’s shadowy outline pauses in front of a posted notice about the recent “Ripper Murders!”, cautioning women against traveling “unaccompanied in the city at night.”
Meanwhile, Lulu (Louise Brooks) and her pair of erstwhile ‘protectors’—Alwa (Francis Lederer) and the old man, Schigolch (Carl Goetz)—have settled in a London slum after narrowly escaping the gambling ship where Lulu, on the run from murdering her husband, narrowly escaped being sold into a lifetime of sexual slavery. But matters don’t appear to have improved much for the trio as Alwa is quick to note the irony that “gin can always be charged, but bread can never be bought on credit.” Trapped, and facing starvation in the London garret, the ever-wily Schigolch suggests sending their only remaining ‘commodity’, Lulu herself, “into the night”…
And so the two storythreads inevitably intersect near the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve.
G.W. Pabst’s elegy to the period of unbridled excess that characterized the Weimar Republic seems fitting in that the victims of a great evil here are being subsumed by a greater, unknown evil. The night world of dark shadows and darker themes marking German cinema in the 20s gave way to the monstrous nihilism of the 30s. And what better way to note the transition than by depicting a woman brought low to prostitution, murdered on Christmas!
And, of course, if it’s “different” you want, you can’t go much more off-the-beaten path with your holiday viewing than a German silent classic! Though German directors of the period tend, popularly, to be identified under the blanket critical term of “expressionism”, director Pabst’s work of the 20s and early 30s could more accurately described as “anti-expressionist”. Striving for greater realism both in photography and set design, along with frankly portraying such topical matters as divorce, homosexuality, drug abuse, and poverty, Pabst films such as Joyless Street (1925) and The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927) tackled its lurid subject matter at a fever pitch of frank, uncompromising, and almost brutal immediacy.
(So if one assumes that a film made in 1929 would have long lost its power to shock an audience, I would hold judgment in reserve until one has seen Pandora’s Box!)
This film, one of two Pabst made with iconic raven-haired beauty, Louise Brooks (the other being 1929’s The Diary of a Lost Girl), perfectly captures the atmosphere of all-pervasive dread more than any other film made during the time of wild debauchery under which Hitler and his jackbooted thugs took power. “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” The German people, along with the rest of the world, would soon have its answer!
18th: THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER
(1940, MGM, dir. Ernst Lubitsch)
Set in a small Budapest shop around the time of a big Christmas sales push, Ernst Lubitsch’s classic romantic comedy concerns two co-workers (James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan) who bicker and argue constantly whilst exchanging letters as anonymous pen pals. As their rancor increases during work hours, the pair—both unaware of the other’s letter-writing identity—fall deeply for each other through their correspondence… and eventually discover one another as “Dear Friend”.
Remade several times since (once as a 1949 Judy Garland-Van Johnson musical called In the Good Old Summertimeand later updated for the digital age as the 1999 Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan vehicle, You’ve Got Mail), the original is especially notable for its grounding in the workaday lives and emotions of the two store employees, forever at cross purposes. These are two real, vulnerable people, with whom an audience easily identifies because of the emotional stakes involved in a highly-recognizable setting. The well-observed details of retail work—manager/employee ego clashes, ill thought-out vendor purchases, various customer issues—give the comedy an added dose of reality.
So that they DO find each other in the end—after-hours in a dimly-lit shop, after the biggest sale of the year—suggests, in spite of the commercial trappings of their immediate surroundings, a genuinely satisfying and truly well-earned Merry Christmas.
In compiling this list of Christmas-themed movies I have found that stickier subject matter, especially romance, is almost impossible to avoid. And therein lies the problem… “Emotion,” one finds, is truly difficult to express in words, much less in images and behavior, and there is a certain important distinction to be drawn between “sentiment” and “sentimental”. Director Lubitsch, along with screenwriter Samuel Raphaelson and the main actors, Stewart and Sullivan (then something of a romantic team in a handful of films from the late 30s), directly address “sentiment” as opposed to being merely “sentimental”—the latter of which one commentator has described as “unearned emotion”.
The main difference between this film and almost every other one on this list, then, is that the characters, setting and details of this “Shop Around the Corner” are so well-drawn and true-to-life that by the end no viewer will have trouble believing—despite the contrivance of the main situation (and despite a few dated social elements)—that these two lonely, fragile souls got together on Christmas. (Here, again, that emotion is definitely “earned”.)
So I guess my point is that if one thinks all holiday movies are corny and cliché-ridden, this just might be the movie that will convince even this old Grinch that that isn’t always a bad thing!
19th: BLACK NARCISSUS
(1947, The Archers, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Having profiled British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death a few weeks back, I’ll now be moving on to another of their grand Technicolor productions, this one about nuns in the Himalayas, called Black Narcissus. And as I’ll be attempting to tie together cinematic/thematic/historical threads as wildly diverse as the symbolic use of color, the role of memory, and the end of the British Empire—in 500 words or less, no less—‘twill indeed be a Christmas Miracle if I actually pull this off!
Again, Powell & Pressburger’s vibrant Technicolor production concerns a group of English nun missionaries who occupy a ruined palace high up in the Indian Himalayans. Their attempts to educate and medically treat the local population meet with resistance, yes, but more importantly, their pasts and emotional baggage, “exaggerated” by the rarefied mountainous atmosphere, become their undoing. In other words, the nuns are only partially conquered by their environment; their true source of failure lies within.
As if visually emphasizing this point, what stands out most in Jack Cardiff’s brilliant color cinematography is the contrast between the cooler, bluer ends of the color spectrum that dominate inside the palace and the lush greens of the untamed wilderness that lie just without. Similarly, the nuns’ habits are white and sterile, but what lies just tantalizingly beneath those plain-looking cowls? I think it’s no mistake director Powell cast three redheads—Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron and Flora Robson—as nuns! Green & Red—which, coincidentally, are the colors of the leaves & fruit of a sprig of holly—suggest vibrant life, passion, and desire—everything the nuns actively (and unsuccessfully) attempt to suppress or deny.
And so we come to the Christmas scene: the local estate agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), accompanied by the Young General (Sabu), comes stumbling in drunk to the chapel and lustily lends his deep baritone to the second verse of The First Noël. The Sister Superior (Deborah Kerr) registers shock and dismay, but yet seems to be concealing a secret smile. And turning the hymnal to the next page, the old English carol Lullay, Mine Liking turns that secret smile into a full-blown reminiscence of her childhood in Ireland, where she fell in love with a young neighbor while caroling on a Christmas Eve long past…
It’s a small moment, but I believe contains, in miniature, the seeds of discontent with their vocation which manifests itself in the inability of the nuns to actively engage with or understand their new and unfamiliar surroundings. And that failure becomes all the more telling in the film’s final image of the rains breaking on the green foliage as the nuns descend the mountain in final retreat: India achieved independence from Britain three months later on August 15, 1947.
Draw your own conclusions!
20th: A LION IN WINTER
(1968, Avco Embassy Pict., dir. Anthony Harvey)
Christmas. The year of grace, 1183. King Henry II (“he of the warring sons” as my childhood copy ofRobin Hood would have it; Peter O’Toole) convenes a holiday (literally, “holy day”) court at his château in Chinon. Called to attendance are his three treacherous princes (“Richard,” Anthony Hopkins; “Geoffrey,” John Castle; “John,” Nigel Terry), his banished queen (“Eleanor of Aquitaine,” Katharine Hepburn), his mistress and future daughter-in-law (“Maid Alais,” Jane Merrow), and the canny but youthful successor to the French throne (“King Phillip II,” Timothy Dalton).
A happy family gathering for the holidays this is not! Based on John Goldman’s 1966 play, powerful performances ranging from a raging Peter O’Toole (repeating his role as Henry II from 1964’s Beckett) to Katherine Hepburn as an aging Lady Macbeth, supported by up-and-coming young performers like Anthony Hopkins (in his very first movie role), John Castle, Nigel Terry, and Timothy Dalton, the actors tear into each other for 134 minutes of betrayal, shifting alliances, and vicious power plays…
Basically, if you’ve never spent a family Christmas discovering your sons are raising armies against you, and then throwing your sons into a dungeon and condemning them to death, and then planning to annul a marriage to your wife of 30 years in order to marry your sons’ fiancée… well, I’d say that, comparatively speaking, your family has no idea of the meaning of the word “dysfunctional.”
Just watch this one! Trust me, you’ll feel a whole heckuva lot better about your family afterwards.
21st: DECALOGUE III/MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S
(1989, Telewizja Polska, dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski)/(1969, France, dir. Eric Rohmer)
With the constant threat of possible bad weather, winter is undoubtedly the best time of year for Slightly Obsessed Movie-watching. As such, blowing winds “crack[ing our] cheeks” in the frozen outdoors, decided to include yet another double dose of Christmas Cheer for our 21st Advent spot. But as these are the heavy-duty theological hard-hitters on my list, for which I fully intended to research “Jansenism,” “Pascal’s Wager,” along with the commandment about “keeping the Sabbath Day holy,” my ambition just *may* have gotten a little bit ahead of my ability to process heavy theology/philosophy immediately following on a heady evening of film viewing… So I’ll just wing it.
Decalogue was a ten part Polish TV series that dramatized each of the Ten Commandments in a modern setting—ten loosely related stories concerning various residents of a soul-crushingly dreary housing complex in Warsaw—with the characters facing the problems and complexities of today. The third in the series, set on Christmas Eve, is about a woman who encounters a former lover, now married, at an evening mass. She persuades him to leave with her and then leads him on a wild goose chase all over the city in order to find her present boyfriend, who has apparently disappeared and/or abandoned her over the holidays.
Well, there are many surprises along the way and part of the charm of this episode is trying to figure out the backstory of these characters and the nature of their past relationship. It’s also a tantalizing peek into Warsaw nightlife just before the fall of Communism and, as backdrop to the drama, offers all sorts of unexplained oddities to ponder as the journey of the two characters deepens and darkens. I won’t give it away, but when the woman eventually reveals to her old boyfriend what her “game” has been, it highlights a predicament far too many people face ‘round Christmastime.
My Night at Maud’s is just that—a night spent ‘round Christmastime at the house of a woman named Maud. And being an Eric Rohmer movie, that night features conversation. LOTS of conversation. The man in question, as if you hadn’t already guessed that there was one, is a Michelin engineer—and Catholic—in a moral quandary. Earlier that day, at a Christmas Mass (a term which seems a redundancy to me), he fell for a young woman he had never met before and with whom he didn’t have an opportunity to speak.
Now, after a chance meeting with an old friend, he finds himself introduced to this other woman, Maud, who appears to be readily, um, ‘available.’ Should he or shouldn’t he?
This was the fourth in a series of movies called the “Six Moral Tales” and featured petit bourgeois characters (very French, dontchaknow) in romantic situations wrought with irony. Personally, the only way I can understand the actions and thought-processes of the character, among all the theological and intellectual doubletalk, is that it’s Christmas and his mind, and therefore his actions, are naturally geared towards a higher plane of thought and deed. Anyway, that’s what I’m going with… And if you’re into that sort of thing, may your winter evenings prove as intellectually satisfying!
22nd: FANNY AND ALEXANDER
(1982, Sweden, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
Ingmar Bergman’s 3-hour career epilogue (5 hours in its original TV broadcast) is the story of a young brother and sister, members of a large theatrical family residing in the Swedish town of Uppsala, whose fortunes suddenly change for the worse when their father, the managing director of the town theater, suffers a fatal stroke while performing Hamlet’s Ghost. Their mother, formerly a leading actress, quits the stage and promptly marries the Bishop of Uppsala, who subjects his new wife and stepchildren to a life of harsh religious asceticism. The family intervenes, the children are literally ‘spirited’ away, and the clever young boy, Alexander, aided by a Jewish mystic, finds within himself the means to strike back at the cruel Bishop and free his mother… In many ways almost a fairy tale in terms of its story, there’s also magic, ghosts, and dreams. In short, a truly wonderful film.
But before that story even gets underway, the first nearly plotless hour of the film depicts a magnificent Christmas gathering celebrated by the family. With almost a documentarian’s eye for detail, Bergman shows all the songs, dances, decorating, games, and delectable fare of a Swedish family Christmas that will make you want to step into the screen and join in on the festivities. (‘Cos let me tell you, those Swedes really know how to party.) So, if bummed out this year on Christmas in general, or Christmas family gatherings in particular, this film might serve to remind you of the joyful possibilities of the season and its celebration.
Didn’t want to destroy the ‘illusion’ of my plot description above–and so didn’t credit the parts–but with a cast that includes Gunn Walgren, Jan Malmsjo, Erland Josephson, Ewa Froling, Allan Edwall, among several others—some of whom had been then-associated with director Bergman for 40 years or more, both in his film directing-capacity and his stage work for Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre—the making of this film was truly a “family affair.”
And that extended behind the camera, as well: cinematographer Sven Nykvist, for one, had shot all of Bergman’s movies from the late 50s on, and, indeed, theirs is one of the most famous director and lighting cameraman collaborations in film history. In Roger Ebert’s 2007 obituary for Bergman (and a thank you to ZekeFilm co-founder Jim Tudor for bringing it to my attention), Ebert noted an exchange between Bergman and director David Lean one year at Cannes where Lean asked Bergman, “How large a crew do you use?” Bergman’s response was “I always work with 18 friends”, whereas Lean, the director of epics, immediately responded, “That’s funny. I work with 150 enemies.”
When one of Bergman’s “18” was a “hostess” hired to serve coffee and cakes in order to make the set “seem domestic”, what a wonderful contrast Bergman’s must have been to the more “Hollywood-like” film set! Intimate and never less than “human,” Bergman’s screen vision, full of warmth and vitality, shines through even the darkest subject matter and is never more powerful when portraying a family… Especially on Christmas!
23rd: SCROOGE/A CHRISTMAS CAROL
(1951, United Artists, dir. Brian Desmond Hurst)/(1984, CBS, dir. Clive Donner)
Y’know, my theory on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is that Ebenezer Scrooge doesn’t really reform at the end of the story but instead intends to use his newfound enthusiasm for everything Christmas, along with his naturally keen business sense, towards its crass commercialization.
Makes sense doesn’t it? One can imagine Scrooge opening London’s first big department store one late November, festooning the old town with wreaths of mistletoe & holly reading “Scrooge & Marley,” maybe having Bob Cratchit head up his toy section while dressed as The Ghost of Christmas Present… So I guess I have Dickens and his fictional counterpart Scrooge to thank for pulling a double weekend AND a Christmas Eve of fun retail craziness this year! (*Sigh*) But anyway, here’s my picks for the best adaptations I know of from the half a kajillion versions that are out there:
1951’s Scrooge has the great character actor Alastair Sim essaying the “grasping old miser” in a version that, for many, is absolutely definitive. Taking its cue from director David Lean’s ultra-realistic Dickens adaptations from the late 40s (Great Expectations, Oliver Twist), this Scrooge is grim, dark, and downright spooky at times. Which, as “A Ghost Story of Christmas” (the original’s subtitle), seems entirely appropriate. Also noteworthy is how director Hurst and screenwriter Noel Langley similarly ground the story in psychological realism, giving the character of Scrooge added depth and dimension only hinted at in Dickens’ original tale. And as for Scrooge’s post-haunting “reclamation,” nothing in the annals of film history beats Sim as Scrooge ‘terrorizing’ his poor servant woman (Kathleen Harrison) with an over-abundance of Chrismas joy!
A Christmas Carol from 1984, though, is my personal favorite. Shot on location in the museum-preserved Victorian village of Shrewsbury, this A Christmas Carol gets the time-period down perfectly with the dirt and grime and noise of bustling mid-nineteenth century London. George C. Scott as “Scrooge” is appropriately gruff and glowering, but with a supporting cast that includes Roger Rees as “Nephew Fred” (who’s also, notably, made up to look like a young Charles Dickens), David Warner as “Bob Cratchit”, Susannah York as “Mrs. Cratchit”, and many other then-notables of British stage and screen, this is, hands-down, he best produced, best acted AND most affecting of the many screen versions. I mean, try not to hear Edward Woodward as the “Ghost of Christmas Present” saying “It may well be that, in the sight of heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than MILLIONS like this poor man’s child!” without getting shivers down your spine. ‘Nuff said!
24th: IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
(1946, Liberty Films, dir. Frank Capra)
Suppose I really couldn’t avoid this one, which is why I saved it for the coveted (in my own mind!) Christmas Eve spot…
A big bust for distributors RKO during its initial release a week before Christmas in 1946, the film was largely forgotten until the 70s, when legal complications over its copyright status allowed TV stations to air it over and over again while paying a minimum of royalties. (Its copyright status has since been ironed out, explaining why you don’t see it as often these days on network TV.) By the 80s, thanks to its repeated showings, It’s a Wonderful Life became firmly entrenched in the public’s mind as a “true holiday classic.”
The irony of It’s a Wonderful Life’s earliest failure and latter day success is that both audience groups had (and have) tended to overlook the movie’s darker elements/themes. In 1947, director Frank Capra’s bright populist vision exemplified by movies such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941) was perceived in It’s a Wonderful Life as out of step with the complications and pessimistic mood of post-WWII America. Years later, the film was embraced as a cherished and inescapable cultural object precisely because it was again perceived as innocuous and sentimental holiday fare.
So, then, this is a “feel-good” holiday movie that opens with friends and family praying for a guy contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve and then, through supernatural/divine flashback, pitilessly details how this good man (“George Bailey,” James Stewart) weathered a life of constant disappointment and continual set-backs. Worst of all, struggling through 10 years of Depression and 5 years of war, while almost single-handedly holding a community together against the forces of American Greed (“Mr. Potter,” Lionel Barrymore), our good man is beaten down to the point where he believes all he’s done and all he is doesn’t really matter and that his town and friends would have been better off if he’d just “never been born.” As basically “A Christmas Carol” updated for the twentieth century, divine forces intervene in the form of “Clarence the Angel” (Henry Travers), but this time the elaborate supernatural drama serves solely to convince a good man that his life is of actual value.
BLEAK, I say! So forgive this sentimental old fluff as he sheds a few tears of Christmas Joy at the sight of a disheveled, unshaven maniac-looking of a fella running down the street of his hometown over-exuberantly wishing friends, foes, and buildings(!) glad tidings of the season. And then forgive me further for totally buying that his friends and family are waiting at home with piles o’ cash, joining in with him on a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne, and even believing for a millisecond or two that “every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” ‘Cos y’know what? By this point, in a story masterfully balancing the darkness of a haunted evening against the brightness of Christmas dawn, I think he—and, by extension ‘we’—have, similar to an earlier Stewart-starring Christmas film profiled a few Advent dates back (1939’s The Shop Around the Corner), earned the right to a Very Merry Christmas.
25th: BIG BUSINESS
(1929, Hal Roach Productions, dir. James W. Horne)
“The story of a man who turned the other cheek — And got punched in the nose —”
December 26th, 1929 morning edition of the “Los Angeles Herald-Examiner;” pg. 22, column C…
Approximately 7,000 dollars worth of property damage was sustained to the home of Mr. Jas. Finlayson (James Finlayson), 1102 Wilshire Blvd., Culver City on Christmas morning by two would-be Christmas tree salesmen. Among Mr. Finlayson’s destroyed property was a doorframe, a light fixture, two windows, a chimney, several priceless vases, a player-piano ‘music box,’ and a small tree. The as-yet unidentified assailants were a large, heavyset man with a small mustache and curiously dainty manner (Oliver Hardy) and a small man wearing a bow-tie and bowler hat with a singularly vacant expression on his nondescript face (Stan Laurel).
The fracas began, apparently, after the two incompetent salesmen, selling Christmas trees door-to-door in Sunny California, were repeatedly rebuffed by Mr. Finlayson’s refusal(s) to entertain the pair’s offer of the Spirit of Christmas courtesy of a small, reasonably-priced evergreen conifer. In exasperation, Mr. Finlayson had recourse to a pair of hedge clippers, which he hastily employed in cutting the tree into four pieces. Silently watching this incredible spectacle, the pair paused, glanced at each other, and, nodding in agreement, proceeded to rip the man’s front door off its hinges while Mr. Finlayson himself stood idly by, aghast at this equally incomprehensible display. Recovering his wits, Mr. Finlayson purposefully strode out to the street, dutifully followed by the curious pair—tripping over a small tree on his way—where he ascended the back seat of the pair’s 1913 Model A Ford and essayed to viciously tear apart the ne’er-do-wells’ stock-and-trade of a half dozen small spruces.
The affair, lasting some 10 to 15 minutes, resulted in further back-and-forth, escalating levels of mutual destruction—during which, on Mr. Finlayson’s end, the aforementioned windows, chimney, vases, and music box met their violent ends; and, on the would-be salesmen’s end, the windshield of their car, remaining Christmas tree stock, car tires, and engine block met theirs—until Officer Stanley J. Sandford (Tiny Sandford) of the Culver City police force arrived on the baffling scene, initially unnoticed by the trio of wanton ravagers, not to mention the crowd of curious on-lookers who had by this point assembled, and quickly put a stop to these unprecedented goings-on after the fatter of the salesmen broke a vase over the policeman’s foot with the blunt end of a shovel.
The homeowner and salesmen then told their tales of woe to the representative of law & order, and the entire matter *seemed* there to end with both parties appropriately apologetic for their individual parts in the disturbance; but, curiously, Officer Sandford, upon remounting his police van, noticed the pair of unrepentant salesmen laughing through their tears of put-upon remorse. Rapidly alighting his vehicle and giving chase to the impish duo down Wilshire Blvd., Mr. Finlayson simultaneously lit the nickel cigar that the salesmen, in apparent contrition, had gifted the homeowner, upon which it promptly exploded in the beleaguered homeowner’s face!
Suffice it to say, Mr. Finlayson joined the chase, during which the pair escaped into the sunlit bloom of a California Christmas.
Ah, Laurel & Hardy! Have slapstick shenanigans ever been so precisely and elegantly parlayed into mirthfully marvelous acts of escalating violence and wanton destruction? For my money, a resounding ‘no.’
For my final Christmas Movie Advent Calendar selection—on C-Day, itself—I simply could not ignore this sterling, 18 and a half minutes of Comedy Nirvana — not to be mixing my theo-philosophical comedic disciplines or anything.
As one of the last of the comedy duo’s silent two-reelers (one-act comedies about twenty minutes in length), the pair had by this point turned knockabout kneeslappery into high art; where the comic complications of a by-then entire generation’s worth of low comedy stylings, derived from vaudeville and other sources, were combined with a greater awareness of the audience’s own (over-)familiarity with tired stage and screen tropes such as, say, slippery banana peels or a swift kick up the backside.
And there’s no greater object-lesson for L&H’s unique style of slapstick than Big Business, ‘cos here the hitting and slapping and kicking are as much in evidence as an old Mack Sennett one-reeler—where, formerly, the Keystone Kops might have violently “pacified” now-forgotten screen miscreants like Ben Turpin or Ford Sterling—only the crucial difference with Laurel & Hardy, along with bald, mustachioed eternal foil James Finlayson, is that both sides ALLOW each other the space and time to retaliate in ever-mounting levels of violence and mutually-assured destruction.
Thus, two parties destroying each other’s property—in this case, a house, sales goods, and a car—might be funny enough, but drawing the comic situation out to absurd lengths—where, in fact, both sides casually observe each other ripping apart each other’s livelihood, pause to silently register the full import of the situation, and THEN retaliate in full fury—is much much funnier.
So what does my little Comedy Lesson above have to do with Christmas?
Well, besides the comic incongruity of screendom’s most clueless miscreants selling Christmas trees in the balmy sunshine of Southern California, Laurel & Hardy could further be described as essentially childlike; two kids at play, only with pickaxes and shovels at their disposal instead of marbles and tinker toys. As two innocents cast adrift in a harsh and violent world, and whose retaliatory actions are entirely appropriate to the comic savagery that is visited upon them, I think they would most likely be forgiven for not “turning the other cheek.”
Indeed, for the joy they have brought nearly 80 years of film fans, one *might* go so far as to refer to the duo as America’s patron saints of merry mirthfulness for their lasting contributions to and influence in both comedy and film…
At least they make my Christmas a little Merrier!
Merry Christmas, Film Fans!