It’s a Wonderful List: Favorite Christmas Movies
By BRUCE COLLIER
This highly subjective list of favorite Christmas movies is not intended to provoke or challenge, but if there are any you feel deserve mention, or if you quarrel with my inclusion of any of these, please write in.
Criteria: Made-for-TV or general release feature films only. Thus, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” excellent though they are, go on a different list in a different column. Also, I actually like these movies, so don’t look for “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” or some other exercise in “so-bad-it’s-good” kitsch. Yes, there actually is a movie called “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.”
“A Christmas Story,” 1983. Directed by Bob Clark, starring Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon, and Peter Billingsley as Ralphie Parker. Set in 1940s Indiana and based on a book by humorist Jean Shepherd, this is the story of one boy’s quest to get the Christmas gift of his dreams – a genuine Red Ryder air-rifle. This one covers all the bases – department store Santa Clauses, school bullies, uncomprehending teachers, getting one’s mouth washed out with soap, and the dangers of shooting your eye out with a BB. If you’ve ever pondered the difference between a double-dog and a triple-dog dare, this will enlighten you. I grew up in 1950s Dayton, Ohio, and the scenes of Christmas downtown are achingly nostalgic. I can still hear the furnace clanging….
“A Christmas Carol.” Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic of Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim has been filmed, according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), some 30 times. And that’s just the ones under that title. There are updates, such as “An American Christmas Carol,” “Scrooged,” and “Ms. Scrooge,” and variations such as “Scrooge” or “The Right to Be Happy.” Even the worst versions can’t overcome the quality of the original, the most famous Christmas story since Luke 2:1-20.
Is there a best version? For my money, Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 film, sometimes called “Scrooge,” usually called “A Christmas Carol,” is the gold standard. Comic actor Alastair Sim, as a drily droll Scrooge, shares the screen with some really fine character actors, young and old. This one incorporates a lot of Dickens’ original lines, a practice not always followed by screenwriters, for reasons passing understanding.
Patrick Stewart is also good in David Hugh Jones’ 1999 television version, seen on TNT. As with Hurst’s movie, this one hews to the book, with a very British screenplay by Peter Barnes and an emphasis on the darker elements of Dickens’ socially-conscious tale. Honorable mention should also go to Ronald Neame’s Oscar-nominated 1970 musical, “Scrooge” starring Albert Finney as a singing and dancing miser. Unlike many musicals, this one actually uses the songs to advance the story. And Alec Guinness as Marley’s Ghost is not to be missed.
Best update? Richard Donner’s 1988 “Scrooged,” starring Bill Murray as ruthless television programming exec Frank Cross. Frank has given his whole life over to the advancement of must-see TV, championing bloody Yuletide specials such as “The Night the Reindeer Died,” with Lee Majors as The Six Million Dollar Man. Supported by Robert Mitchum, John Forsythe, Carol Kane, Karen Allen, and others, Frank spends one-half of the film cracking wise and the other half screaming with terror as the three ghostly spirits subject him to a darkly funny recap of his misspent life.
“Miracle on 34th Street.” There are several versions of this one, too, dated 1947, 1959, 1973, and 1994. Forget the last three. There is only one worth your time. It’s the first one, directed by George Seaton and starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, a nine-year-old Natalie Wood, and Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle. When Kringle, “playing” Santa Claus at Macy’s, speaks to a sad little Dutch refugee girl in her native language, you have no choice but to tear up. It’s a perfectly unexpected moment of Christmas spirit, and there’s not a special effect anywhere in sight. Collecting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, Gwenn is said to have commented, “Now I know there’s a Santa Claus.” Yes, Mr. Gwenn, and he was you.
No list of Christmas favorites would be complete without “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Frank Capra’s 1946 contemplation of the road not taken, and the true meaning of a life well spent. Much as I like the film, I have trouble thinking of it as a Christmas movie. I don’t think Capra meant it as such, but it’s forever out of our hands. Ask most people – those who watch movies regularly – to name their top five Christmas movies, and the tale of George Bailey, Clarence the Angel, Old Man Potter, Bert and Ernie, and Bedford Falls will generally make the cut.
On the other side of the coin, there are the other Christmas movies, the ones dwelling on the darker side of the holidays, which always have their following. Among these my pick would be Ted Demme’s 1994 comedy, “The Ref,” with Denis Leary as a foul-mouthed burglar stumbling upon a family in the throes of holiday dysfunction. Speaking to Glynis Johns’ gorgon-like mother-in-law character, whose husband has passed on, Leary snarls, “Lady, that husband of yours ain’t dead – he’s in hiding!” This movie also features a pre-Oscar Kevin Spacey, who gets a terrific slow-burn monologue about his mother’s martyr complex. I wouldn’t show this one on Christmas Eve, but it might be fun later in the week with leftovers.
Chris Columbus’ cartoonishly violent “Home Alone” (the 1990 original, forget the sequels) straddles the line between dark and light. On one hand, it’s a Warner Brothers-style comedy pursuit, with Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as a dumbbell pair of Wile E. Coyote types, hopelessly outmatched by 10-year-old Macaulay Culkin. On the other hand, there is the subplot about abandonment and wishing one’s family didn’t exist, but John Hughes’ screenplay and the excellent ensemble – including Catherine O’Hara and the great John Candy – keep it lightly poignant and well balanced. “Home Alone” held the record for years as the top-earning comedy film of all time. It may still.
This year has seen relatively few big screen Christmas flicks, with “Four Christmases” about the only one so far, unless you count feature-length toy commercials like “Barbie in a Christmas Carol” and whatever that thing was with Barney the Dinosaur. Opening this week is “Nothing Like the Holidays,” about a Puerto Rican family in Chicago. The trailer looked pretty promising.
Hollywood will never stop making Christmas movies, just as it will never stop making chick flicks or comic book hero blockbusters. It’s like panning for gold – sift through enough sludge and once in a while, you come up with a nugget.