Posted by Susan Doll on December 22, 2008
I had more trouble making this list than I did finding Christmas presents for everyone. My initial list seemed so “normal” that I was disappointed with it. I kept thinking there must be films out there that I had forgotten about. I looked at endless lists of Christmas movies online; I looked at anti-Christmas lists; I looked through catalogues of movie titles. For awhile, I got hung up on looking for really “special” movies — highly regarded classics, the rare, the bizarre. But, then I decided that this was not in keeping with the spirit of the blogathon topic.
Perhaps part of the problem is that I am ambivalent about Christmas; for many reasons, I truly dread this holiday, and this Christmas has been more difficult than usual. On the other hand, I know there will be genuine moments of joy, such as when the carolers come around to my mother’s house in the country and serenade us. I was torn between those favorites that make me feel like there really could be peace and good will on earth, and those that remind me that there won’t be. Finally, I decided to include both. Some are Christmas movies that are festive, warm-hearted, and joyful; others are anti-Christmas in their cynicism, dreary mood, or pessimism.
So, for what it’s worth, below is my list of movies that make the holidays go smoothly for me. . . or, at least, faster.
1. The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). Monty Woolly is likably unlikable as Sheridan Whiteside, an Alexander Woolcott-like critic who visits a small provincial town in Ohio. When he falls on the icy steps in front of the home of a local businessman, he is carried inside to recuperate. Whiteside’s sense of humor is appropriately acerbic , and his famous friends are glamorous, but they all clash with the simple lifestyle of his Ohio hosts. The characters who are Whiteside’s big-city, celebrity friends are send-ups of real-life stars and personalities of the time, which is my favorite part of the movie. Beverly Carlton is supposed to be Noel Coward, Lorraine Sheldon is a representation of Gertrude Lawrence, and Jimmy Durante plays Banjo, a wild spoof of Harpo Marx. Durante steals the film in his one big scene in which he drops in on Whiteside, chases the nurse (played by Mary Wickes), sings a ridiculous song, and spits out one line after another with impeccable timing. When he grabs Wickes and says, “Come to my room in an hour and bring a rye bread,” the line is at once ridiculous and wicked.
2. White Christmas (1954). I can’t help it; I have to watch this movie every Christmas. I love the pairing of Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye (singer and dancer) with Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen (singer and dancer). And, the production numbers are classic Irving Berlin tunes: “Sisters,” “Snow,” ”Choreography,” the title tune, and more. “Choreography,” which spoofs Martha Graham-style modern dance, is my favorite, largely because of Vera-Ellen’s tap-dancing contrasted against Danny Kaye’s faux modern steps. Mary Wickes is in this film, too, which marks the first time I have ever comprised a list in which Ms. Wickes was the dominant actor on the list!
3. Desk Set (1957)
The Tracy-Hepburn romantic comedy takes place at Christmas, but it is not a Christmas movie. It lacks the overt sentimentalism, perhaps because it is set in the workplace. Though not the driving force in the movie, I like the Christmas touches, such as the office party in which the characters let down their hair among their coworkers. Katharine Hepburn plays the head of a fact-checking department at a major communications network. She fears efficiency expert Spencer Tracy is going to put her department out of business with his new computer. The computer in the film is the size of a room, which is unintentionally funny to me as I sit here typing this blog post on my tiny laptop. Still, much like today’s models, the computer screws up at the end, frustrating Tracy and his assistant who have too much faith in its capabilities. I think this may be the first example of computer rage!
4. A Christmas Carol (1984)
Of all the interpretations of the Dickens’ tale, this made-for-television version with George C. Scott is my favorite. Scott makes a very credible Scrooge, largely because of that gravelly voice that could be so gruff. It’s a nice contrast to the smooth tones of Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present. I also like the way the Spirit of Christmas Future is depicted as a mammoth death figure, which floats above ground like the haunt that it is. It does not speak but emits a kind of screeching noise that is far more frightening than words. It is easy to forget that A Christmas Carol is a ghost story, and this version uses the conventions of the horror genre to remind us of that — the iconography, the low-key lighting, the creepy musi c – to get that idea across. This treatment adds suspense and tension to the familiar story. As a close second to this version, I would have to pick Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, in which the goofy cartoon character played Scrooge in an hour-long TV special that used to air every holiday season. It introduced me to Dickens’ timeless story of the meaning of Christmas and then to Dickens in general.
5. Young at Heart (1954)
This musical remake of Four Daughters stars Doris Day and Frank Sinatra in a story about four sisters who each fall handsome Gig Young in their own way. While Day seems a better fit with Young, she ends up with Sinatra, who plays a cynical, bitter music arranger whose luck is never good. His whole character is defined in the ballad “One More for the Road,” one of the saddest songs in all of popular music. The melancholy mood hangs over the film for the rest of its running time, which includes a Christmas scene in which a near-tragedy occurs. Despite the happy ending, it’s the song that I like, especially when my Christmas spirit runs out. When that happens, I am prone to watch my favorite anti-Christmas movies.
1. The Ref (1994)
This holiday comedy captures the down side of modern Christmases, particularly the holiday rituals that have become empty and the visits by relatives that are excruciating. Denis Leary stars as a burglar who breaks into the home of Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis to hide out , which forces him to participate in the couple’s Christmas party. His blistering comments about their family dynamic — an overbearing mother, a thieving son, materialistic in-laws — are truthful but funny and the perfect antidote to Christmas overload. The profanity of Leary’s rants creates a cynical tone that is perhaps the most anti-Christmas aspect of the movie — no good will toward men here.
2. Black Christmas (1975)
A nice contrast to White Christmas, this horror film is now recognized as an important precursor to the slasher genre. Black Christmas offers a modern variation on the “10 Little Indians” plot in which residents of college residence are dispatched one by one in the most vile ways by a mysterious resident in their attic. We never see “Billy” or know his back story, so the reasons behind his depravity are never known. This serves to ramp up the fear factor. Aside from being an excellent horror film, the anti-Christmas touches are clever. In a scene in which Santa listens to the wishes of the little tots, the kids are obnoxious and Margot Kidder’s character gives them alcohol. The film is well directed by Bob Clark, who gave us TCM’s favorite Christmas movie, A Christmas Story.
3. Funny Farm (1988)
Chevy Chase and Madolyn Smith play a city couple who move to a farm in the country, believing it to be the ideal existence often depicted in Currier and Ives prints and in Norman Rockwell paintings. They are disillusioned when the townsfolk turn out to be cantankerous, clannish, and cloutish, and the life they imagined for themselves does not happen. When they decide to sell the farm around Christmastime, they “hire” these townsfolk to impersonate the ideal small-town life in order to attract potential big-city buyers. As a matter of fact, Chevy Chase passes out old issues of Saturday Evening Post with Rockwell paintings on the cover so the townsfolk know how to act! Directed by George Roy Hill, Funny Farm makes excellent use of character actors in the roles of the small-town residents.
4. Body Heat (1981)
This movie is the antithesis of all things Christmas. The setting is Florida in the summer during a heat wave (which sounds good as I sit here in December in snow-ravaged Chicago); the genre is film noir, which is perhaps the only genre designed to prove that our social institutions are corrupt and ineffective; only one character (Oscar the cop) has any semblance of morality; the protagonist is a weak-willed non-hero who is not as smart as he thinks he is; and the leading lady has no interest in good will toward men. With rampant nudity and passionate sex scenes, this is not something that reminds you of leaving cookies out for Santa, though perhaps even Santa could use a good sex scene by the time the holidays are over.
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