Thursday, December 23, 2004

Yuletide Movies

I'm not Christian, although I do celebrate the Yuletide. And I have always enjoyed movies associated with the season. Tonight I watched The Santa Clause again. As far as recent movies with a Yuletide theme, it is one of my favourites. It has a very original premise, not to mention one of the most striking images of the North Pole on screen. Of course, The Santa Clause seems to be the exception to the rule. Most Yuletide movies released these days seem to fall far short of the mark. One need look no further than the wretched 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street to see how bad recent holiday movies can be.

Of holiday movies, I think it is safe to say that they don't make them like they used to. In fact, I would say that the Golden Age of Yuletide films took place in the mid to late Forties. It is amazing how many of the holiday classics were released in this era: Holiday Inn (1942), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and Holiday Affair (1949). I suppose that with World War II, people needed more Yuletide cheer than they do now.

Of course, the holiday classic is It's a Wonderful Life. Contrary to popular belief, the movie was not a total flop at the box office, although it was far from a smash hit. It was even nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. Regardless, it did not become the monolithic Yuletide classic until a clerical error allowed the film to fall into public domain. When that happened, television stations across the United States were able to show the movie as often as they liked during the holiday season. As a result a lot of people discovered just what a wonderful movie it is. As I see it, It's a Wonderful Life is essentially a film about spiritual death and rebirth. Businessman George Bailey loses his will to live, only to be shown how much impact he has really had on people's lives. As a result he regains his will to live again. It is one of the most inspiring films ever made and, no doubt, Frank Capra's best film.

Miracle on 34th Street is nearly tied with It's a Wonderful Life when it comes to holiday classics. The movie has a deceivingly simple premise--a man who may or may not be Kriss Kringle visits New York and winds up working as Santa Claus at Macys. It is through this premise that the film lampoons the commercialisation of the holidays, corporate greed, and pop psychology, while at the same time addressing the importance of belief, faith, and charity. It is also one of the most inspiring movies of all time and remains a classic to this day. It has been remade many times, but none of the remakes (especially the dreadful 1994 version) have ever matched it, let alone surpassed it.

Beyond these two movies, it is debateable as to what the third greatest holiday film of all time may be. After all, there are several worthy candidates. One is a contemporary of both It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street--The Bishop's Wife. The Bishop's Wife features David Niven as a bishop who has lost his way while seeking to build a new cathedral. Into his life comes an angel, played by Cary Grant, who not only saves Niven's marriage, but restores his faith. The Bishop's Wife is also an inspiring movie, although a bit more blatantly Christian in tone than either It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. The performances by its three leads (David Niven, Cary Grant, and Loretta Young) are priceless.

Another great holiday movie is the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, also known as Scrooge. Featuring Alastair Sim as Ebeneezer Scrooge, it is the quintesential version of Charles Dickens' novel. The film features an accurate recreation of Victorian London, stellar performances (Sim as Scrooge, Michael Dolan as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and so on), and a script that is largely faithful to Dicken's work.

Of course, another great film is the musical version of the tale, Scrooge from 1970. Albert Finney makes an excellent Scrooge, alternately cranky, pitiable, and tragic. The rest of the cast is great as well--the late Sir Alec Guiness as Marley's Ghost, Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Michael Medwin as Fred. The score by Leslie Bricusse is one of the best of any musical from the late Sixties or early Seventies, "Thank You Very Much" and "Happiness" are among the best songs.

When it comes to musicals, perhaps the holiday musical is Holiday Inn. The movie focuses on an inn of the same name that is open only on holidays. Because of this, the plot doesn't simply focus on the Yuletide, but virtually every holiday on the calendar. Its primary attraction is the Irving Berlin score, performed by Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Virginia Dale, and Marjorie Reynolds. The movie may well be best known for the great, classic, Yuletide song "White Christmas," although it includes other great songs as well--"Happy Holiday," "You're Easy to Dance With," and "Easter Parade."

Like most musicals of its era, Holiday Inn was a romance, but to me the romantic movie for the season is The Apartment. I have already discussed it here, so I won't discuss it further. But I will discuss another Yuletide romance, A Holiday Affair. The movie features the beautiful Janet Leigh as widow Connie Ennis, into whose life enters free spirit Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum). Naturally, Mason complicates Connie's life, not to mention brings up some uncomfortable feelings. The movie is remarkable in its even handed approach to the characters--neither of the rivals for Connie's hand, Mason and Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), are portrayed in a bad light. It is also very funny, with a hilarious scene with Harry Morgan (later of M*A*S*H) as a police captain. Although not as well known as many holiday classics, it is a must see.

Of course, when it comes to comedy, A Christmas Story is the Yuletide movie. Its premise is simple. Ralphie wants the Daisy Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action BB Gun for Christmas and tries to figure out how to convince his parents to get it. The film captures the flavour of childhood in the pre-World War II era quite nicely, with several hilarious setpieces (among them, the famous scene of Flick getting his tongue stuck to a pole and a somewhat frightening trip to see Santa). It flopped at the box office when first released, but throughout the years it has grown in popualarity until it nearly matches It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street in its status as a holiday classic.

These are only a few of the holiday films I consider truly great. There are many others, among them Meet Me in St. Louis (from which "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" came), The Lemon Drop Kid (in which "Silver Bells" made its debut), and The Lion in Winter (Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine fight it out through the holidays). Indeed, for me these movies are as much a part of the Yuletide as "Jingle Bells" or eggnog. It just wouldn't be Yule without them.

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