A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
Way back in the dim reaches of time, people went to the theatre to see Christmas movies. In my time, most of us saw the classics on television. Then, of course there were VHS tape, DVDs and now downloads. Regardless, there is something very Christmassy about settling in on a long winter’s night with popcorn and Pepsi (or whatever) and watching a movie you’ve seen at least a hundred times since you were five. It says Christmas — just as much as Santa, the elves and reindeer.
Despite what the Internet will tell you, there is no be-all/end-all list of Christmas movies; everybody’s Top Ten is slightly different. For example, I have a friend who is pretty much normal. He’s a good husband and father, pays his taxes and keeps a somewhat traditional Christmas. However, his favourite Christmas movie of all time is Jingle all the Way. Go figure! The point is the mark of a good Christmas movie is totally subjective.
Hollywood has made literally hundreds of Christmas movies. Some of them are extra special and some aren’t fit to be shown on Khatfoodistan Regional Airlines, but they all fit into three broad categories. They are the retelling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, The Christmas Reboot and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Christmas.
After the nativity story itself, A Christmas Carol is the definitive tale of Christmas. Over the years, half of Hollywood has taken a crack at retelling it. Scrooge has been played by Reginald Owen, George C. Scott, Bill Murray, Michael Caine (with a troupe of Muppets) and even Jim Carrey (in an animated version.) These are all decent renditions (and there are probably a few I’ve forgotten) but the very best version was filmed in 1951 and starred Alastair Sim as Scrooge. Why? First of all, it’s black and white. This makes it shadowy and grim, almost sinister, and it gives some verisimilitude to Victorian London. (The rag-and-bone scene is especially Dickensian.) Secondly, it shows the slow decline of Scrooge, and with him Marley, from young, bright-eyed clerks into the hard, penny-pinching misers they become — figuratively forging the chains that Marley is dragging through eternity. It softens our attitude towards Scrooge: in a sense we start cheering for him. And finally, the redemption of Scrooge is a complete transformation — not just Ebenezer with a grin on. When Scrooge is sitting on the stairs with Mrs Dilber and gives her a sovereign, he is serious about it. When he goes to his nephew’s house, he’s hesitant, unsure of his reception. When he confronts Cratchit back at the Counting House he calls him Bob. The change in Scrooge is real, and we applaud him for it. This is perhaps the best movie version of A Christmas Carol with only one flaw. In the bedroom scene, when Scrooge wakes up to discover he hasn’t missed Christmas, as he’s jumping around, you can clearly see the film crew in a mirror on the wall.
There are a ton of Christmas Reboot movies. The cynical among us would say that finding the true meaning of Christmas is a national pastime in small-town America. Of course, Christmas is all about a rebirth of faith, but the problem with a lot of the Christmas Reboot movies is they are just not that believable anymore. For example, in The Bishop’s Wife (1947) I simply do not believe that Loretta Young would throw over guardian angel Gary Grant for pain-in-the- ass David Niven. I mean, really! Would you? The very best of the Reboots are, of course Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas in Connecticut and (as much as I hate it) It’s a Wonderful Life. But there are a few other films that get overlooked. One of them is Elf. As Dorothy Parker once said (about Katherine Hepburn) Will Ferrell’s acting talent runs the gamut from A to B, and he uses every ounce of it in Elf. Even if you haven’t liked a thing Ferrell has done since Saturday Night Live you’ll have to admit Elf is a classic.
There is no end to the great A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Christmas movies. The only question is, depending on your sense of humour and sensibilities, which ones are better than the others. At the top of the heap are A Christmas Story, where Ralphie finally gets his Red Ryder BB gun and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which is one of the funniest movies in history. These two are head and antlers above all the rest and are required viewing in comedy school. After that, it’s up for grabs. Some people like The Santa Clause, although the sequels are getting a bit old. Some people like Christmas with the Kranks. Some people even like Bad Santa. It all depends on your taste. One of my personal favourites is The Ref, which is hard to summarize but extremely funny.
Of course the Christmas season would not be complete without White Christmas. This movie is so synonymous with Christmas it stands alone as the single finest Christmas mood movie ever made.
So, the Top Christmas movies on my list are (in no particular order — yeah, right!)
A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Story
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
A Child’s Christmas in Wales (very hard to find)
Prancer (just ‘cause it’s cute)
The Polar Express
And I’m saving #10 for Harold and Kumar.