And a ho-ho-ho to all! Welcome to my own personal selection of all-time, best-selling Christmas movies ever. What I mean by “best-selling” is that they’ve exploited the art of selling a heck of a lot better than any Mad Men episode I know of. And let’s face it, dear readers: Christmas is nothing if not a time for mucho product placement.
It’s this aspect, then, that I wish to address, what good ole Charlie Brown once decried as the commercialization of the season. Whether it’s a person, a feeling, an object or an ideal, every one of these cinematic fixtures is about selling something related to the holidays.
With that said, I’ve kept this list short: ten festive features for your consideration – to be judged, critiqued, and skewered to your heart’s content. But before you break out the eggnog, don’t forget to put up those evergreens – with their shiny little ornaments intact, naturally. You wouldn’t want to buck a yearly trend, would you?
In the meantime, have a holly, jolly Christmas everybody!!!
March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934)
The first of our holiday offerings is, of all things, an operetta, and is the earliest flick on our must-see program of Yuletide favorites. Based on Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland (its original title), this preseason opener includes such delightful numbers as “Toyland,” “Never Mind, Bo Peep,” “Castle in Spain,” and “Go to Sleep (Slumber Deep),” along with the lyric sounds of Felix Knight as Tom-Tom the Piper’s Son, Charlotte Henry as Little Bo Peep, and Virginia Karns as Mother Goose. Why, there’s even a dastardly villain to hiss at (Henry Brandon as Silas Barnaby, the meanest man in town), as well as the vintage comic antics of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (as Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, respectively) to share a good laugh with. A fair chunk of this film’s plot revolves around the intellectually challenged duo’s scatterbrained schemes, which eventually lead to their powering up the six-foot-tall Wooden Soldiers of the title. A charming, prewar ambiance prevails throughout. And if you still don’t get the implication, the black and white photography spells it out for you, plain and simple: good is good and evil is evil. We also get a surprise visit from Saint Nick (Ferdinand Murnier) and a good deal of tinkering at the old toy shop where Stannie and Ollie do their darnedest to make things work – until they get fired for botching up Santa’s order. Beyond that, there’s nary a Barbie doll or action hero in sight (how refreshing), just a bunch of rampaging Bogeymen to contend with. Ah, the sweet innocence of youth! It’s all in good fun, of course, while providing some lighthearted fare for the whole family to enjoy.
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Things take a sharp turn for the worse, however, in Frank Capra’s darkly-hued vision of a Christmas Eve gone sour, the flip side of holiday cheer. Seriously, it’s that rarest of birds (and I don’t mean a roast turkey), i.e., a family-friendly film noir for the times. James Stewart is George Bailey, the Everyman of Bedford Falls. Donna Reed is his loving wife Mary, Henry Travers is Angel Second Class Clarence Oddbody, and Lionel Barrymore is crabby old Mr. Potter. Let’s be honest here and call this picture for what it is, i.e., a domestic take on an old English fable: Charles Dickens’ unforgettable A Christmas Carol brought to our shores and updated to postwar America. And to think it all started with a greeting card, according to accepted lore. It can’t get more commercial than that, now, can it? All the classic characters are present and accounted for, albeit in thinly-veiled forms: Potter is the town’s resident Scrooge, while George is the put upon Bob Cratchit (a composite of both Cratchit and Scrooge, in fact), with Mary as his spouse, their sick daughter Zuzu as Tiny Tim, Clarence Oddbody as the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, and so on. We could spend all day analyzing the finer points of this incredibly insightful drama, made just after Stewart had come back from his many bombing raids over Europe (what must he have seen!). Although the commercialization angle gets short shrift, what we have instead is a prescient vision of capitalism gone amok. Among the more harrowing episodes is the frantic run on the town’s banks, the lack of adequate housing for the poor and destitute, and George’s frightening dream sequence, wherein he imagines what life would be like in his fair town (now a slum called Potterville) had he never been born. It still packs a wallop today, when foreclosures, financial crises, and “fiscal cliffs” threaten the very fabric of our lives. In the end, all turns out well: the townspeople gather at the Bailey household, where they break out in a stirring rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” while little Zuzu delivers her closing gambit: “Look daddy. Teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” Does that include the cash register?
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
This is the first of our celluloid confections that treats the Christmas season and the rampant merchandising that invariably went with it as a for-profit business enterprise. And it doesn’t make any bones about it, either. Miracle appeared on the scene the year after It’s A Wonderful Life made its screen debut. Consequently, it perpetuates the rather cynical notion of Christmas as a gigantic theme park via the Thanksgiving Day Parade, a prefabricated annual “event” dreamed up by department store owners to preserve, protect, and defend their right to a quick buck. As it were, Macy’s and Gimbel’s figure prominently, and so does the greeting card industry. A bewhiskered Edmund Gwenn (Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor) plays Kris Kringle, a merry old soul and stopgap Santa Claus, who happens to take his day job a tad too seriously – and with good reason, since he claims to be the real thing. Co-starring Maureen O’Hara as Doris Walker, the woman who hires him, young Natalie Wood as her grounded-in-reality daughter Susan, and John Payne as Fred Gailey, the handsome lawyer who defends poor Kris from an insanity charge (as one of the Marx Brothers would say, “You can’t-a fool-a me. There’s-a no such-a thing as-a sanity clause” Oh no?). With Gene Lockhart as Judge Harper, cornered into making a decision as to whether or not there is such a person as Santa, William Frawley as his political adviser, who cautions the judge about rendering the wrong ruling, and postal worker Jack Albertson, who unknowingly decides the case. A surprise ending brings the issue to a head, while settling the matter to everyone’s delight, including the skeptical prosecuting attorney (Jerome Cowan), who rushes out of the courtroom in time to buy his son a present. Talk about consumerism! This is one of those films that demands repeat viewings, especially for the bond shared between veteran scene-stealer Gwenn and newcomer Wood.
A Christmas Carol (1951)
We now come to Dickens’ timeless classic, a Victorian-era exposé of the grim consequences of the Industrial Revolution and its deleterious effect on Britain’s lower classes. It’s a dog-eat-dog world (right down to the bone) and the textbook example of Social Darwinism taken to the extreme. Comic actor Alastair Sim is the Grinch-like Ebenezer Scrooge, a man so tight-fisted with his finances that he’d rather freeze to death than throw another coal onto the fire. This is the preferred version – miles ahead of MGM’s less gritty 1938 adaptation featuring an all-too-easily motivated Reginald Owen as Scrooge. Owen was a poor substitute for Lionel Barrymore, radio’s premier acting voice at the time. Barrymore’s acute arthritic condition prevented him from participating in that earlier film venture, hence the substitution. Fortunately for viewers, Sim’s brilliant take on the character has been preserved for us for all time: his miser is drier, colder, more callous, and ergo more cruel than Owen’s grandfatherly one. Indeed, this is as dark as the old boy gets. His ghostly excursions will scare the Dickens out of you, too. Scrooge is portrayed here as a victim of circumstances beyond his control. Coming as it did on the heels of It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, there’s no question the old skinflint’s misanthropic ways deserve a comeuppance. He’s redeemed in the end by a healthy dose of reality. The shocking image of the Ghost of Christmas Present harboring the two young children inside his cloak (“This boy is Ignorance, this girl is Want”) is forever etched in our memory. The film reaches its climax in the scene of the terrified Scrooge, alone and at the end of his rope, coming face to face with the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come – a patently chilling moment, I don’t mind telling you. The message? Treat your fellow man as you would like to be treated yourself. With Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit, Hermione Baddeley as Mrs. Cratchit, Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley, Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretrorius in Bride of Frankenstein) as the Undertaker, Glyn Dearman as a bright-eyed Tiny Tim, and Peter Bull as the Narrator as well as one of the gentlemen who comes calling on Scrooge to lend a helping hand to the poor.
King of Kings (1961)
We talked about Christmas as a holiday, but we’ve yet to mention the person responsible for that whole gift-giving thing. So here goes: one of the two or three best film treatments of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, told with reverence and respect. Jeffrey Hunter is a most tender and winning Christ. I’ve always objected to this picture’s association with the gag-line “I Was a Teenage Jesus,” simply because Nicholas Ray, the man responsible for Rebel Without a Cause (the James Dean-Natalie Wood vehicle), was noteworthy for being the quintessential teen-angst filmmaker of his day. But his King of Kings is much more than that. To begin with, an uncredited Orson Welles narrates (superbly, I might add). There’s also an all-star lineup of leads, headed by the redoubtable Robert Ryan as a deadly serious John the Baptist, Rip Torn as a properly conflicted Judas Iscariot, Harry Guardino as the rebellious Barabbas, Hurd Hatfield as a pompous prig of a Pontius Pilate, Ron Randell as Lucius the Centurion, and Frank Thring (repulsive, as always) as the lascivious King Herod. With Brigid Bazlen playing a depraved and debauched Princess Salome who dances and preens in decadent Lolita-like fashion. What more could you ask? The picture was filmed on location in Spain, with many Spanish extras appearing throughout – including the worthy fellow playing Pompey the Great. Skewed camera angles and unusual perspectives make this production a thoroughly offbeat and entertaining one – for the subject matter, that is. I happen to think it’s one of Hollywood’s finest religious epics. Producer Samuel Bronston got his picture company off to an excellent start. Others soon followed (among them El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire, 55 Days at Peking, and Circus World), but King of Kings was the first and best of the lot. The highlight is the moving Sermon on the Mount, with Hunter’s inspired and beautifully realized Lord’s Prayer, and of course that marvelous Miklos Rozsa film score (it’s to die for). The widescreen image of a blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon Jesus is the selling point here.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
A medieval Passion-Play brought to life. But compared to the earlier King of Kings, however, it’s a slow, stately affair, a bloodless religious pageant and a challenge to one’s patience to boot. This is, without a doubt, the Hallmark Hall of Fame roadshow version of Jesus’ life and mission, brought to the big screen. Between the Swedish Max von Sydow’s intellectual approach to the role and American Jeffrey Hunter’s more emotionally compelling one, it’s difficult to choose which one wins out. Both actors display facets of Jesus’ personality that I like and respect. Sydow’s more studied interpretation does have its pluses and minuses, but the real star is the scenery. You can’t beat those Southwestern locales for authenticity (the picture was shot in and around Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Monument Valley, Utah, and California’s Death Valley). Whether they’re relevant to the Middle Eastern aspects of the story is another matter entirely. Maybe that’s as it should be, considering the number of familiar faces who participated in the spectacle. This bevy of Tinsel Town’s finest certainly helps to keep things moving, but those minute-by-minute-cameos of famous folk in minor roles are overused to irritating effect. With Charlton Heston as a John the Baptist-cum-caveman type, Claude Rains as Herod the Great, Jose Ferrer as Herod Antipas, Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate (he shaved his head bald for the role, but kept it that way for the remainder of his career), Martin Landau as a youngish Caiaphas, Dorothy McGuire as Mother Mary, David McCallum as Judas (interesting casting here), plus Donald Pleasence, Roddy McDowall, Ed Wynn, Shelley Winters, Sal Mineo, and John Wayne as the Centurion (okay, maybe not so interesting after all). The original running time of almost four and a half hours remains unavailable on DVD and Blu-ray. Still, the deliberate pacing and atmospheric production values make up for the lack of excitement. Director George Stevens wrapped his career up in grand style with this magnum opus. The reverential music score by Alfred Newman (with a quote or two from Verdi’s Requiem during the Via Dolorosa and Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus after the Resurrection) was one of his last. Greatest Story is not in the same league as other Christ-centered works and is fairly slow-going over the long haul, but it’s definitely worth a moment of your time.
A Christmas Story (1983)
What follows next is a picture where crass commercialism begins to take center stage. A Christmas Story is indeed the funniest and most enchanting of the items on my list by far. The film version of Jean Shepherd’s book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (and other writings) has become a perennial holiday classic – a comedic triumph from beginning to end, abetted in no small part by Shepherd’s witty, deadpan delivery. He puts out a steady stream of verbal vignettes, savoring every word and spewing forth a running commentary that defines movie narration as never before. Nine-year-old Ralphie Parker (a terrific Peter Billingsley) is obsessed with getting an official Red Ryder carbine-action, two-hundred shot BB-gun for Christmas. Unfortunately, he’s stymied at every turn – even by the feisty department store Santa Claus (a nightmarish vision of shopping mall Santas and their helpers), who spouts the recurring line: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” After several misadventures, some of which are relegated to the fantasy realm (including an uproarious one where Ralphie goes blind from having his mouth washed out one-too-many times with soap), he finally gets his wish, only to see it backfire on him. Oh well, in the land of the blind, the kid with one eye is king. Darren McGavin is his charming, grumpy self as Ralphie’s dad, known as the Old Man, whose constant fuming and fussing reach absurdist levels when the family’s turkey dinner is all but ruined thanks to his next-door neighbor’s famished canines. Battered but unbowed, the Old Man whisks his family off to enjoy a Christmas meal at their local Chinese restaurant, where the Peking duck smiles up at them in imagined disdain. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a popular Christmas carol sung by the over-eager waiters in politically incorrect “Chinglish” accents. It’s one of this film’s many riotous moments. The only thing dad has going for him is that atrocious leg lamp he won in some stupid contest, the most hideous decorative objet d’art you’ve ever laid eyes on. No wonder his frustrated wife (played by Melinda Dillon) trashes it at the first opportunity – good riddance! The film incorporates many of the themes of this essay, but does so in mildly satiric fashion. No matter! You’ll love every minute of this outlandish slice of middle-American life.
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Ever get a really good idea that somehow goes incredibly wrong? That’s the premise of The Nightmare Before Christmas. And brother, do things go wrong here, as Christmas comes to Halloween Town, courtesy of Jack Skellington, the town’s Pumpkin King and never-say-die (!) community organizer. In this imaginative stop-motion re-working of a Broadway show (we’re back to where we started with March of the Wooden Soldiers), Jack’s earnest attempts at capturing the spirit of the season (with the kind of Yankee ingenuity that made this country great), in the face of overwhelming odds, are thwarted by incompatibility. Perhaps the two holidays, Halloween and Christmas, were fated never to come together, but at least this film proves it – although nowadays, most commercially minded retailers tend to go from October 31st straight into December 25th, without a break in the holiday action. When the children in Nightmare wake up on Christmas morning to the disaster that awaits them, Jack does his level best to make things right. What a guy! You can’t keep a good skeleton down, I always say. Chris Sarandon is Bone Daddy Jack, with the haunting singing voice of composer Danny Elfman, who wrote the tuneful and sophisticated score as well as the macabre lyrics. Catherine O’Hara is Sally, the beautiful Bride of Frankenstein clone, and Glenn Shadix is the indecisive Mayor of Halloween Town. With his two-faced swerving head and stovepipe hat, he’s the splitting image of a powerless politician, while Ken Page is the soulful, swingin’ Oogie Boogie Man. Featuring strong support from William Hickey, Edward Ivory, and Paul Reubens (a Tim Burton regular), along with assorted vampires, phantoms, witches, mummies, werewolves, and other horror-movie types. The picture is directed by Henry Selick, and produced by Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi, from an original Burton story. Burton’s motto, “One’s person’s craziness is another person’s reality” becomes the catch-phrase for this production as well. In fact, the songs are what make this show shine, from the opening “This is Halloween,” “What’s This?” and “Kidnap the Sandy Claws” to “Making Christmas” (note the use of the Latin Dies Irae theme) and Jack and Sally’s lovely closing duet. We’re only a few steps removed from the Great White Way, folks! Parents may find this one a bit too intense for very young viewers, but I say give it a shot. You never know how kids react to things these days!
Jingle All the Way (1996)
Here’s a Christmas story that’s bound to give the holiday season a bad name. Did I say bound to? Why, it absolutely does give it a bad name: it’s called exploitation. Directed by Brian Levant (could he be related to composer and pianist Oscar Levant? I hope not), Jingle All the Way is a movie that practically wallows in cynicism, a joyless exercise in the art and substance of self-absorbance. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Howard Langston (how he got that Austrian accent is never divulged or explained), a career-minded salesperson and negligent dad very much in the Jim Carrey Liar, Liar mold. Dad just can’t seem to keep his promises (boy does that sound familiar), missing his son Jamie’s karate exhibition and, in general, causing his constantly harried wife Liz (Rita Wilson) to turn to their smarmy divorced neighbor Ted (Phil Hartman) for comfort. To redeem himself in his son’s eyes, Ah-nolt decides to get him the most hard-to-find Christmas toy imaginable (sure, why not make things more difficult for him?): a do-it-all action figure of bogus super hero Turbo-Man. That any father in his right mind would give in to such a spoiled brat as Jamie – played with annoying indifference by the obnoxious Jake Lloyd – is reason enough to avoid this flick. That the lead character actually wants to please the terrible tike stretches credibility to the breaking point. Schwarzenegger is a big-name star (and an action hero in his own right), but when he meets up with unfunny comic Sinbad, playing an equally miscreant parent and impatient postal worker named Myron, you know he’s met his match. Myron’s in the same boat as Howard (maybe they should’ve switched names, not that it matters much to the plot). You can just imagine the troubles this implausible pair shares as they raid the various department store shelves (the movie was filmed in Minnesota and at Bloomington’s Mall of America) in a mad rush for the unobtainable trinket. When Howard is accosted by a shady-dealing Santa Claus (Jim Belushi), who introduces Arnie to his illegal toy operation — while trying to sell him a Spanish-language Turbo-Man — the whole thing starts to unravel. To say there’s crass commercialism afoot is an understatement. There’s not a single redeemable moment or positive message in the entire picture – in other words, it’s a perfect representative of all that we’ve been railing against from the start. See it if you must, all others stay clear!
If the above entry was enough to discourage you from holiday shopping (and participating in the Christmas season ritual altogether), then the unfettered innocence of Jon Favreau’s Elf will do much to restore your faith in humanity (well, almost). Individual initiative, of the kind that lifted A Christmas Story and The Nightmare Before Christmas to newfound heights, is touted here in this sweetly sentimental (and often quite funny) tale of a fellow named Buddy (childlike clod Will Ferrell), brought up as one of Santa’s elves in the North Pole, who makes a total nuisance of himself in the blithely unsentimental Big Apple. A cold fish out of ice water? Maybe so, but Ferrell is so likable, and the story is, how shall we put it, so unrelievedly sincere, that you wind up siding with the big lummox almost from the opening reel. His dilemma is simple: abandoned by his single mother to an orphanage, Buddy sneaks into Santa’s toy sack and, lo and behold, he’s adopted by the old boy’s elves and made to live among them. Realizing he doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the toy-making crowd (you think his six-foot-three-inch frame had something to do with it?), Buddy takes off on his own in search of his biological dad (James Caan). The story is told in flashback and in the form of a children’s book, a major coup in the storytelling arena. However, some of the cast members could use a strong cup of Christmas cheer, most notably a relentlessly irascible Caan (what, Sonny Corleone as a children’s book publisher? Not likely!), who never really convinces one that he’s an okay guy after all; while Santa (played by grouchy old Ed Asner with a perpetual scowl on his kisser) had better not pout if he knows what’s good for him. However, there’s a reason for the lack of holiday spirit, which I’ll not spoil for you here. Bob Newhart is his low-key self as the narrator and Papa Elf. A radiant Zooey Deschanel is Buddy’s love interest, whose lack of self-confidence is put to the test (her shower scene with Ferrell, as they blend together on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” is a riot). Mary Steenburgen is Caan’s understanding wife Emily, and Daniel Tay is Caan’s son, and Buddy’s half-brother, Michael. He’s another one of those neglected movie children, cast aside by over-achieving parents as well as hack screenwriter’s with no originality. The children’s book-publishing motif, with the firm being run as a cutthroat business venture – and with money and profit the be-all and end-all of corporate existence – is given a well-deserved drubbing. This is a welcome return to the long-dormant realm of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, It’s A Wonderful Life, and other holiday favorites of one’s youth. It even concludes on a high note (!), with a community sing-along (of sorts) featuring the whole of Manhattan accompanying Zooey’s efforts in doing justice to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Uh, I think I’ll have that eggnog now…
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes