Sunday, December 09, 2001


I had quite a heated debate with a dear friend a while back about what constitutes a Christmas movie. Obviously, it has to take place at Christmas, but I think there's more to it than that. I think there has to be some element of fantasy (ghosts or angels or magic or Santa) and life-changing redemption (spiritual or otherwise). The movie we were arguing about was WHITE CHRISTMAS, and for me, that just doesn't quite cut it as a Christmas movie--there's nothing fantastic and no redemption (yes, there's snow on Christmas Day and Dean Jagger's resort is saved, but no one really has their life or outlook on life changed). Plus, I'm just not crazy about the movie, although it is pretty to look at. To be consistent, I guess I have to declare HOLIDAY INN ineligible as well, even though it has perhaps *the* classic Hollywood Christmas scene: Bing singing "White Christmas." Actually, I could include it because the Crosby character does have a life-changing epiphany about the woman he loves. At any rate, my favorite Christmas movies are:

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE--I can watch this year after year, even in the dead of summer, and still enjoy it and get teary at the end. Some people think it's too sappy, and others think it's too depressing (they see the somewhat subliminal message of the film as being that it's OK to give up on your dreams) but I think it's a great mix of the two moods. It is definitely a film with dark edges, with financial failures, death, attempted suicide, and the granddaddy of all dysfunctional-family scenes (George Bailey's outburst in the bosom of his family on Christmas Eve). Not to mention that Mr. Potter basically remains unvanquished at the end. But it also has heart-warming scenes of friendship and devotion, and its message about the difference that one person can make overrides any worries about giving up on dreams--after all, George's dream of saving his father's business does come true.

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET--Even though most everything in this film can be explained away rationally, the spark of whimsical fantasy remains strongly felt throughout. I like the fact that Edmund Gwenn's Kris Kringle can be goaded into mild violence against a twitchy-eyed bureaucrat. Like everyone else, I love the scene with the little Dutch girl and the mounds of mail on the judge's desk (and Gene Lockhart is great as the judge), but perhaps my favorite scene is with Shellhammer's tipsy wife on the phone, tickled to have Santa as a house guest.

THE BISHOP'S WIFE--Cary Grant is an angel who comes to earth in answer to the desperate prayers of a bishop (David Niven) who is trying to raise money to build a grand cathedral. But Grant discovers that Niven's biggest problem is the shaky state of his marriage to Loretta Young; a lovely but platonic romance develops between Young and Grant, and all is resolved on Christmas Eve. This is perhaps the best-acted Christmas movie, with all three stars absolutely inhabiting their roles wonderfully, supported ably by James Gleason as a cab driver, Gladys Cooper as a Scooge-like woman, and especially Monty Woolley as one of the few real atheists in any Hollywood film--even his assumed conversion at the end is left up in the air. The black & white photography by Gregg Toland (CITIZEN KANE) is stately, rich, and dark, without adding an undue darkness of tone to the proceedings.

I also like many of the CHRISTMAS CAROLS out there, especially the Alaister Sim version, which I think is the darkest, both in mood and look, and the George C. Scott version done for TV. MGM's 1938 film, with Reginald Owen is short and sweet (and Gene Lockhart is the cheeriest Cratchit ever!), and I have a fondness for AN AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CAROL with Henry Winkler, though it's rather drab looking.

I remember liking THE HOLLY AND THE IVY, a British dysfunctional family movie from the 50's, but it's been almost 20 years since I've seen it--it never crops on on cable or tape. REMEMBER THE NIGHT, with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray as a mismatched thief and lawyer who fall in love over the Christmas holidays, is a nice, warm movie with good supporting performances by Beulah Bondi (George Bailey's mother) and Sterling Holloway. A CHRISTMAS STORY is the best Christmas comedy and A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS is still the best TV special. Two movies that I love are set at Christmas but don't really fit the bill as far as fantasy or redemption: THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER. HOLIDAY INN and THE LEMON DROP KID, although barely qualifying as Christmas movies, are ones that I usually dig out every December. Two non-Christmas films with great Christmas scenes are A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN and THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. And the less said about SCROOGED, the better!

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