I’m Dreaming of a Celluloid Christmas Part Deux, by John Ostrander
We now return to my list of Christmas movies, begun last week. And thanks to all of you for your responses and your own suggestions.
How better to begin this round than with How the Grinch Stole Christmas – the cartoon TV special, not the bloated movie that was a vehicle for Jim Carrey. I mean, do I really have to say that? Dr. Seuss, Chuck Jones, and Boris Karloff, Thurl Ravenscroft – the voice of Tony the Tiger – singing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” which is one of the great modern Christmas songs. All in twenty-two minutes. Perfect.
Actually, let’s spend a moment’s meditation on both the Grinch and Scrooge. They are certainly cousins. And I think we not only identify with them at their curmudgeonly worst but we are meant to do so, especially these days. Yes, they are both monsters in some fashion – but we also identify with a good monster, do we not? They act out what we feel about the holiday season – Humbug! Oh the noise, noise, noise, noise! – and the gaiety that is being forced upon us, especially these days in the over-commercialization of the holiday.
Maybe we feel locked out of Christmas – by choice, by belief, by our own religion – and we rightfully feel resentful. Christmas time is also a time of depression for many people, especially if we think we should be feeling like something out of Norman Rockwell – and don’t. The Grinch and Scrooge both give voice to our inner misanthrope and God love ‘em for it. Even if they do change by the end.
Since we’re talking about TV specials at the moment, let’s add A Charlie Brown Christmas – the first Peanuts TV Special and the best one. The story is true to classic Peanuts which also makes it true to kids. Other Peanuts TV specials would be tied to other holiday times of the year and would twice more, as my memory recalls, return to Christmas itself. The later Christmas Peanuts stories, however, never seemed to have a central story as this first one does. At it’s heart in the original is Charlie Brown’s choice of a Christmas tree – a forlorn little twig that he thinks has character and the rest of the gang thinks is awful. By the end, however, with some love and kindness, it turns out to be a fine Christmas tree after all.
This always informed Kim’s and my Christmas tree shopping. Kim was actually a very canny tree maven but she could be seduced by a lonely and forlorn tree, a “Charlie Brown tree.” It would be lacking and Kim would want to take it home because nobody else would take it. My general reaction was, “For good reason and we’re not taking it, either.” I saw no reason to pay someone real money for a less than adequate tree. Kim, however, was shaped by “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” And, sometimes, we got the tree with “character.”
The other thing that is notable to me about A Charlie Brown Christmas is Linus’ declaration that he knows what Christmas is really all about. He then recites part of the Christmas story from the gospels. Almost all the movies and TV shows I like about Christmas have very little mention of the birth of Jesus in it, except in a general way. They are more or less secular; they celebrate “the Season” rather than the “Event.” Yes, I know it was a pagan festival first, and I’m more or less an agnostic myself these days. Nevertheless, there’s something in me that loves this part of the first Peanuts Christmas Special. It’s true to itself and it’s source material and I find it a charming moment.
And then, on the other hand, there’s Bad Santa – this movie is just so wrong. So gloriously, wonderfully wrong. Billy Bob Thornton plays the WORST department store Santa ever – boozed up, dirty, horny, foul-mouthed and smelly. He’s actually a thief named Willie, waiting to crack the store safe on Christmas Eve. Santa’s helper, a black dwarf named Marcus (played by Tony Cox), is actually the brains of the outfit. There’s an odd, large, eight year old boy who befriends Willie while Marcus has to cope with the head of security (Bernie Casey) who has figured out the scam and is cutting himself in. Hilarity and violence ensue.
The Kid lives with a practically comatose Grandma (played by an uncredited Cloris Leachman) while Laurel Graham plays a waitress who has a thing for guys in Santa suits. Oh, and John Ritter, in what I think was his last movie, plays the store manager. It’s a great cast.
The film is not for the easily offended. BOY, is it not for the easily offended. In fact, those of us who love it might be slightly pathological. And there’s an unrated version – Badder Santa – which I haven’t dared to look at – yet. Those who have said I’ll love it more. We’ll see.
I think that the appeal here is the same as the unrepentant, not yet reformed, Grinch and/or Scrooge. Willie is sympathetic because he is how we feel – at least, some of us – about part of Christmas. A certain amount of Christmas certainly is humbug – but not all.
This brings us to my final selection, It’s A Wonderful Life – for me, this is the best of the Christmas films and just one of my favorite films year round. Oddly enough, I’d avoided it for years, having gotten the impression it was way too corny and mawkish. Full of “Capra-corn,” as they sometimes describe the films of Frank Capra who directed this movie as well.
Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, the man at the center of the film. It’s Christmas Eve and George Bailey is at his wit’s end; he’s contemplating suicide. In heaven, the Powers That Be decide to send him help in the form of an apprentice angel, Clarence, who is still looking to “earn his wings.” First, Clarence (and the viewer) reviews the important points of George’s life up until that night. In the last part of the film, Clarence then shows George what life would have been for those around him if George had never been born. Yes, we get a happy – almost sappy – ending but it has been honestly earned, in my opinion.
The bulk of It’s a Wonderful Life is really a very dark film. George Bailey is a good man but he has to choose to do what is right every time and it always costs him. It costs him his dreams, his own plans for himself, what he wants to be. There is an anger, a rage, that builds in him throughout the film and it peeks out from time to time until it finally lashes out at those near him in a very ugly way. At the moment of crisis, there’s a lot of bitterness, cynicism, and anger mixed up in him. There’s also still a lot of good.
Many films just sort of assume that a given person is a “good” person and so it comes naturally to them. No wonder those characters come off as dull and uninspired. It suggests a passive state – “oh, that’s just who they are.” Bullshit. If doing right was simple and easy, there would be more people doing it. It’s a difficult path and Jimmy Stewart shows just how hard it is to walk it in this film.
There’s a point in the film when George is waiting for his younger brother, Harry, to come home from college. It’s then supposed to be George’s turn to get out while Harry takes over at the savings and loan. However, the brother comes home with a wife and a job offer from his father-in-law, one with a real future. Harry, to his credit, is ready to do right by George but George has to decide if he can let him. There’s a moment, a close-up on Jimmy Stewart’s face, as he has to make that decision and it all plays out there. His life is slipping away. You can see what doing the right thing costs him.
Another moment is in a bar, late in the film, when George prays for help. He’s at the end of his tether. I know what it’s like – that moment. I’ve felt it. I’ve been here. I think a lot of us have. To my mind, Stewart plays it true.
It’s a Wonderful Film. And the joy at the end is earned.
And then there are those films that are missing from my list.
So, why isn’t White Christmas on my list? Well, first of all, I prefer its earlier version, Holiday Inn, which introduced the song "White Christmas" and became so popular, they re-made the film with the song as the movie title. Both star Bing Crosby and both have pretty much the same plot. To be honest, I like either version well enough. I just don’t watch them very often. If I don’t see the other films on my list every Christmas then I feel deprived. I don’t think I’ve seen White Christmas in maybe a decade.
What about Miracle on 34th Street? Again, I like it well enough and have watched it more in recent years but it’s not one of my favorites, one of the ones I must see every year. So it’s not on my list.
I’m sorry but, in my estimation, Die Hard is not a Christmas movie despite what some have suggested – it’s a great action flick that happens to be set at Christmas. It could have just as easily been set at some other time of the year.
It’s also important to say right now that Alvin and the other Chipmunks are not Christmas, either. Okay? They sang a Christmas novelty song back when I was ten years old. It was funny the first five hundred times I heard it. It no longer is. People singing with helium raised voices is only funny when one of those voices is mine. Nuff said.
In addition, there are those I know who love the TV specials of Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty, the Snowman. If I weren’t agnostic, I would pray for you. Seriously. Alright, alright – I promised, in the spirit of the Season, not to dump on other peoples’ faves. They’re wonderful. Charming. Humbug. Moving on now.
I generally look at new Christmas TV specials with a very jaundiced eye, generally wondering how this sort of crap gets on the screen. The producers of most of them must be counting on our being brain dead from the stress of holiday preparations to buy into any of this twaddle. However, this year there was a new one that I look forward to seeing again – Schrek the Halls, which was so much better than last summer’s Schrek the Third. Schrek the Halls was scatological in some places, it was sentimental in others. I was very entertained. My kind of Christmas.
There will be some Christmas favorites I missed on this list, there will be some I forgot and there will be some on which we simply don’t agree. Whatever your favorite Christmas film is, I wish you the joy of it, and of the Season. If you don’t have one, if you just hate the whole damn thing. . .
Well, humbug to you, too, buddy.
Ho Ho Ho.
Writer of Star Wars: Legacy, Suicide Squad, GrimJack: The Manx Cat (here on ComicMix) and Munden’s Bar (soon to return to ComicMix), John Ostrander is really a giant puppy.