Perfect Films for Every Occasion, Holiday, Mood, Ordeal, and Whim
By Michael Atkinson, Laurel Shifrin
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2008 Michael Atkinson and Laurel Shifrin
All rights reserved.
"... isn't just a day; it's a frame of mind."
— Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street
"The mother of all holidays" is how Jean Shepherd put it in his narration of A Christmas Story, and it's true enough-but Christmas is also the year's most demanding day (or fortnight, really) in terms of atmosphere, emotional temperature, and point of view. We don't feel a need to get all colonial or even terribly grateful on Thanksgiving; nobody talks about "getting into the spirit" of Mother's Day, Veterans Day, or even Independence Day. But for Christmas, there is a pervasive compulsion to summon reserves of tolerance, generosity, congeniality, and childlike optimism, and we go to extraordinary cultural lengths to make it happen. Hence, the phenomenon known as the Christmas movie. Films that fall into this category serve as narrative windows into that Edenic space in which cold hearts are warmed, charitable love dawns on the greedy, and, most of all, childhood memories and the purest notions of home become easier to grasp and hold. Old movies-those more closely linked to the idealized past from which all adult ardor for the holiday flows-are best; crassly commercial contemporary parables about crass commercialism (Jingle All the Way, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Christmas with the Kranks, to name a few) are not, and we've largely left them behind. The season is short, after all.
The Night Before Christmas (1905) This fabulously arthritic Edison production from the infancy of film history — directed by narrative pioneer Edwin S. Porter — is a dusty dream of Victorian faerieism, opening with Santa feeding a herd of real reindeer and teeming with antiquey landscape paintings and pretechnological toys. It's also the climactic short on Kino's DVD A Christmas Past, a collection of silent vintage holiday films that includes D. W. Griffith's fiercely moralistic A Trap for Santa (1909), the utterly lovely Edison film of realistic snowfall frolicking A Winter Straw Ride (1906), and Santa Claus (1925), an amateur film proudly shot on and around the Alaskan glaciers. A hypnotic time capsule and an effective premodern weapon in the war against shopping and accumulation for their own sakes.
Scrooge (1935) It's a tiring parable, but Charles Dickens's chestnut A Christmas Carol is, in one form or another, all but unavoidable. Preachy, sure, but it's such an overused story that you can hardly watch an hour of November television without being pelted by a commercial's reference to it. Better to go to the source — the book! — or to this first sound version, British-made, starring stage vet Sir Seymour Hicks as Scrooge. A creaky, attic-webby beaut, choked with shadow and fog.
Beyond Tomorrow (1940) A fiercely odd septuagenarian Christmas tale cowritten by Mildred Cram, the author of Love Affair, this forgotten dilly concerns three bachelor fogies (buoyant Charles Winninger, crusty yet affable C. Aubrey Smith, dyspeptic Harry Carey Sr.) who die and return as ghosts to facilitate the seemingly doomed romance of a pair of young 'uns. The star power of these three character actors alone makes it worth seeking out, but the story is also a fabulous lark. Sometimes retitled Beyond Christmas.
Remember the Night (1940) An overlooked screwball masterpiece from Hollywood's golden age, written by bad-boy satiric genius Preston Sturges and directed by beloved "woman's director" Mitchell Leisen, in which whimsical bachelor DA Fred MacMurray takes sexy shoplifting tramp Barbara Stanwyck with him to his homestead for Christmas. Sturges's dialogue, volleyed by these pros four years before Double Indemnity, is mint, but the idiosyncratic comedy slowly, organically seeps into melancholy. The film is as smart-mouthed as it is stunningly compassionate, and Sturges's fat heart comes through in ways that are unique in a Christmas film. The characters' feet are planted in the real world, and the season's triumph is rescue from the memory of a poisoned childhood.
Holiday Inn (1942) Possibly the best movie to watch while wrapping presents. Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire are a pair of showmen who decide to open a country inn that celebrates every holiday with song and dance. That's it for story. As you'd expect, most of the film is caught up with other seasonal occasions; Christmas is just one page on the calendar. It just so happens that the movie's endearingly canned studio "winter" and Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" are the most memorable things about the film. That's fine: you're busy looking for scissors and tape. Anyway, from today's perspective, there's something inherently Christmasy about the hat-wearing, crooner-loving, home-front 1940s, isn't there?
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) As much as the saga of the bustling Smith family of 1903 St. Louis might seem, in many ways, to crest during the unforgettable Halloween sequence, the famous Sally Benson tale reaches its yesteryear climax with its Christmas scenes, and Judy Garland's inimitable warbling of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." That ultragingerbread Victorian house never seems as at home as it does in the snowy, gaslit evening.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946) Truly, no one who's owned a television set anytime in the last thirty years needs to be advised to see Frank Capra's tumultuous masterwork It's a Wonderful Life after Thanksgiving. To escape from the public-domain broadcast ubiquity it suffered from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, you would've had to have been Bigfoot, living in the woods. So we won't linger — except to say, in case you've been oversaturated or distanced by televisual redundancy (far too many sympathetic viewers know this film in fragments, having happened upon signature scenes, on up to three stations at the same time, while channel-flipping), take a few years off (avert your eyes, as if from the sun), and then sit down and subject yourself to this movie's passionate vision once again. Much more than merely a Christmas film, Capra's magnum opus is an open exploration of midcentury American humanity, with all of its sacrifice, resilient humor, and dark self-pity, as it comes up against the inexorable hungers of postindustrial capitalism. But it's also, helplessly, a Christmas movie, the most heartfelt of all Christmas movies, free of cliches, shopping incitements, and the need to "believe" in anything but your neighbors. If you're not a kid — and you probably shouldn't be if you're going to watch this film, what with all its talk of bank runs and mortgage equity — Christmas is really about home, devotion, family, self-sacrifice, and the sometimes rueful passage of time, and this may be the only film ever made about the season that takes these simple realities as matters of fact. And it nails that snowy, small-town feeling down, despite having been shot in Encino.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Although not as badly wallpapered over December television as It's a Wonderful Life, nor anywhere as threatening, this is arguably the most beloved of all Christmas movies. Maureen O'Hara and eight-year-old Natalie Wood arch their eyebrows over a department store Santa's claim to being the real Kris Kringle, and a courtroom battle over his sanity makes believers out of us all. You'll get more than just a holiday heartwarming; this movie serves up a hearty dish of late-1940s New York City nostalgia, since the story centers around Macy's Department Store (which still takes up an entire city block after most of its competitors have vanished, and which still hosts a certain Thanksgiving Day parade) and stars the store's original owner as himself, waging the midtown-Manhattan battle of mass merchants against Mr. Gimbel (also played by himself) and declaring to all the world that he is one of the Santa faithful. Has any era in our lifetimes signaled a sense of holiday community as potently as the postwar years? (It's in those years that most classic Christmas songs were popularized.) The film is so powerfully familiar you probably can't believe Edmund Gwenn or John Payne in anything else, but try nevertheless to remain dry-eyed as Gwenn, at the head of a crowded "meet Santa" line of shoppers, sings a song in Dutch to a war orphan. Caution for family viewing: if your kids still set out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve, their world might be upended by the suggestion that believing in Santa Claus could land you in Bellevue.
Scrooge (1951) The most commonly revered version of the Dickens tale, the dreary sermonizing of which is thoroughly enlivened by the grumpy joie de vivre of Alastair Sim as Scrooge — Sim executes the supreme feat of perfectly judging Scrooge's inner misanthrope while at the same time giving us a grand, winking show of ham and cheese on wry. The titular creep never had it so good. This moody British adaptation — should there be any other sort? — has plenty of Victorian flavor, too.
The Holly and the Ivy (1952) A cozy, mature, and rarely-seen British heart-warmer in which an aging parson and widower (Ralph Richardson) convenes, with his three adult children and other relatives, on their village homestead for the holidays — to reminisce about the war, remember dead loved ones, and lay bare a few family secrets. Director George More O'Ferrall is no Frank Capra, but there's a lot of genuine warmth to go around.
White Christmas (1954) In this semimodern quasi-sequel to Holiday Inn, the bounce is there, the Berlin songs are there, and Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen, and Rosemary Clooney (aunt to George) are there, saving the old New England lodge from bankruptcy by hoofin' and croonin'. Relatively speaking, the film is light on old-fashioned seasonal vibe, but what it does have is an explicit paean to the American home front for the legions of vets exhausted from war.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) Baby boomers know this puppet-animated fable's scary oddities inside and out, from the Burl Ives snowman in a plaid vest and the icy toy mansion in the snow, to the feverish anxiety about reindeer employment, the Island of Misfit Toys' winged lion-king, and the too-chilling abominable snow monster Bumble, complete with giant shark teeth and autonomously mobile fur. Forgive us if we think this decades-old kid's fodder more than a little strange, from the song lyrics ("We all pretend the rainbow has an end," the key ballad says. "And you'll be there, my friend, someday ...") to the ending credits, when a sleigh-riding elf, distributing umbrellas to the toys and then tossing them overboard, figures a toy bird can do without and drops him, not knowing it's a Misfit Toy alum and cannot fly. But that is all decidedly beside the point; for most intents and purposes, because we grew up watching it every year, it's now an annual must-see. Of course, the Rankin/Bass animation mill rapped out other seasonal staples, all of which are to some degree essential Christmastime viewing: The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Frosty the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town (1970), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), and others far less memorable. But Rudolph is the genre's greatest head trip, a weird dream within which we all remain bewildered children.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) OK, but this is the most sublime holiday special ever mustered for TV. Just a few years after this modest, melancholy cartoon first aired on CBSTV, it had acquired the status of a national carol, an anthemic cultural touchstone without which no home was truly seasonally attuned. By now, it's a landmark. No other twenty-five minutes of hand-drawn animation needs as little introduction; indeed, it's included here only for completion's sake. If you're holding this book, you already know this ditty by heart.
A Christmas Story (1983) No one had use for this witty dose of ham-fisted yet clear-eyed nostalgia in 1983, but Bob Clark's realization of Jean Shepherd's immortal memoir In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash has since acquired the patina of a godsend. Truly, Shepherd's fulminating narration and Clark's cartoony style take getting used to, but after you're acclimated, you'll appreciate that the saga of Shepherd's semifictionalized 1940s Indiana boyhood is blissfully funny, sharp, and sermon free. Christmas here isn't about charity or good cheer or "faith" — it's all about being a kid, getting presents, writing Santa letters, dealing with bullies, negotiating playground arguments, fearing the wrath of Dad, fantasizing comeuppances, suffering the ill-bought gifts of distant relatives, ad infinitum. It's the only film even to attempt to capture the cosmic allure that a particular toy — in this case, a very particular BB gun — can have on a lower-middle-class gradeschooler. The cast is uniformly excellent, but if Peter Billingsley is brilliantly eager as the hero, and Darren McGavin equally so as his irascible, distracted furnace fighter of a father, props must be offered as well to young Ian Petrella, as the younger brother with too many of the movie's most quotable moments. But it's Shepherd's enthusiastic asides, moist with amused memory and sardonic self-regard, that fuel the film. Without a crumb of sentimentality, he reminds us what Christmas is really about: our pasts, our childhood selves, our lost innocence.
Comfort and Joy (1984) Scottish director Bill Forsyth is — or perhaps was, since his only film since 1993 was never released in the United States — a master of gentle discom-bobulation, and his Christmas movie is appropriately wacky, but in a quiet, generous way. The holiday here is experienced by a middle-aged Glasgow radio personality (Bill Paterson), whose sexy kleptomaniac girlfriend walks out on a mysterious whim, and whose subsequent Christmastime loneliness is abated only by his involvement in a turf war fought between two rival ice cream vendors. With Forsyth, it's all in the details and rhythms, and the movie has a thoughtful, ruminative personality that could do wonders, as the title implies, for the sad-sacked and lonesome.
Falling in Love (1984) This is Christmas in New York City in the 1980s, where you can meet your soul mate in a shopping bag mix-up at Rizzoli, potentially the toniest of all the Manhattan bookstores, rich with wood trim, elaborate architecture, and holiday shoppers in designer businesswear. The lovers, a low-key Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, find mutual attraction almost immediately, but they're each married to someone else. Within the year, they flirt with an affair, try, fail, surrender to the fact of it, hem and haw — nobody easily finishes a sentence in this movie — and another Christmas comes around. It's no Brief Encounter, for sure, but the actors are cooking on all burners, and the holidays-in-Manhattan feel is everywhere.
Gremlins (1984) A nasty, fantastically clever antidote of a film for those of us who think that Christmas commercialism has gotten completely out of hand. Here, seemingly innocent Christmas presents have a Hyde side, taking on carnivorous lives of their own and hunting down their recipients. The mayhem of Joe Dante's bad-time dream — in which adorable, Muppetish furball creatures are introduced into suburbia as gifted pets, then transform into raving homunculi — might be the most astute metaphor for holiday capitalism ever devised; what seems at first an ordinary act of giving becomes a bloodthirsty battle to the death. (Is there a more triumphant moment in all of 1980s Hollywood cinema than that when the hero's mom, faced with a kitchen full of malevolent harpies, gears into combat mode and dispatches the cackling creatures in the blender and the microwave?) Should we all have to fight our gifts? If we did, we'd certainly give the exchange, and the intent behind it, a lot more thought.
Nutcracker: The Motion Picture (1986) It may be one of America's best-kept secrets: we as a populace don't really love the Nutcracker ballet very much, and we resent having to ingest it every year as if it were a citizenship requirement. Most of us would be surprised to learn that the original E. T. A. Hoffmann tale has precious little to do with sugarplum fairies and all to do with a rather vicious war between toys and monster mice. Filming ballets has always been a bad move in any event, but this Carroll Ballard film version has a few saving graces beyond the score: it's designed by Maurice Sendak, and it has a bewitching opening act, shot in intricate close-up, in which Drosselmeier embarks on his epic toy-making venture. Then there's dancing. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Flickipedia by Michael Atkinson, Laurel Shifrin. Copyright © 2008 Michael Atkinson and Laurel Shifrin. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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