I need a little diversion in what has otherwise proven to be a very busy week.
A conversation/debate started when I posted that my family was gathering for the annual viewing of "A Christmas Story." A lot of folks love that movie, while others communicated their disdain. But it got me thinking about the rare concept of a "Christmas movie," and the ones that over the years have helped define the holiday season for me and my family.
I was originally going to weigh in with a "best and worst" list of Christmas movies, because there are some real clunkers out there too. But in the interest of trying not to offend my friends who may like one of the holiday films I despise, we'll just make this a list of my favorite Christmas movies.
So, in no particular order, are my list of favorite holiday cinema:
* "Humphrey's Search for Christmas" and "The Littlest Present." Yes, two movies I have actually appeared in make the list! These are two films produced by my church's kids ministry, and they have become a part of our holiday traditions both because they are enjoyable to watch, were so enjoyable to make, and, especially in the case of "Humphrey," have become a part of my own family traditions. When "Humphrey" was released back in 1991 or 1992, I was just starting my family, my kids were little, and they watched the video and listened to the song soundtrack over and over and over. And because of my personal connections to these films, they bring back wonderful memories.
* "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" The first of the Rankin/Bass stop-action animated Christmas specials, and still the best. I remember watching this when it premiered back in 1964 or so, and because it was an annual part of my childhood Christmases, I still enjoy it today. Cheezy? You betcha. But its a great story, and the songs have become part of the annual Christmas music rotation along with traditional fare like "Silent Night" or "First Noel."
* "The Toy that Saved Christmas" This is the "Veggie Tales" entry into Christmas -- very clever, very original, and a great message for kids. Larry the Cucumber's "Silly Song," "Oh Santa" is a satiric Christmas classic! Again, this was released at a time my kids were little and very much into "Veggie Tales" videos, so it is imprinted on my family's collective consciousness (along with the Veggie Tales Christmas album!) and was produced before Veggie Tales went "mainstream" after their financial difficulties a few years ago. I consider the earlier Veggie Tale work, when Phil Vischer was still running the show, to be much superior to the current product.
* "Miracle on 34th Street" Here, I mean the original version, with Maureen O'Hara and Keenan Wynn. (The remake just didn't work for me at all). My family watches this every season. Wynn's portrayal of Kris Kringle creates a very human, sincere Santa Claus, and the performance of a young Natalie Wood as a little girl transformed from a Christmas agnostic to a "true believer" is a heartwarming story. Plus, the courtroom scene where Kringle's attorney legally proves there really is a Santa Clause resonates with this usually cynical lawyer.
* "A Christmas Carol" Charles Dickens' Christmas novella about the transformation of the cold hearted Scrooge through the visitation of the three Christmas Spirits has been on of my all time favorite stories -- I have re-read it annually for years. There are several screen adaptations that I have enjoyed. I have not seen the most recent Disney version featuring Jim Carey (I usually can't stand Carey, so I can't imagine that project working),but I can recommend at least five movie adaptations of "A Christmas Carol." The best version from a total cinematic viewpoint is probably the 1951 British production starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge. Very true to the original story, and Sim established the mood and mannerism for Scrooge that have been copied by actors portraying the role ever since. Two more modern productions that were very effective in preserving the original story line and giving us wonderful interpretations of Scrooge and the other characters are versions which starred George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart respectively. The Stewart version took some liberties with the story in setting up the film, but did not take away from the concept, and Stewart is a great Scrooge. In addition, there are two childrens' version of the story I recommend. The "Muppet Christmas Carol" is surprisingly well done, using the muppet characters to portray roles in a way that is respectful to the original material, but still allows the usual Muppet humor to seep through. The musical numbers are fun, too! And who could forget Mr. Magoo? There is a "Mr Magoo" cartoon version of "Carol" originally produced in the 60s. While its probably not a "first class" production, it was an early influence that got me hooked on the story. For that, I will always be grateful, and therefore recommend it.
* "White Christmas" This is one of my family's favorites -- we've watched it every year, and I probably have half of the movie's lines memorized. Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, and great songs by Irving Berlin. Yes, its a typically cheese-ball Hollywood musical, but its great fun.
* "Holiday Inn" The original "White Christmas." Indeed, while the movie "White Christmas" is much more widely known, this is the the film that originally introduced the fabled Christmas song. Starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, this should be the movie that is remembered and be the big Holiday Classic. "White Christmas" pales in comparison, and is really a more modern rip-off of this film. This was songwriter Irving Berlin's brainchild - a musical about a fellow (played by Bing Crosby) who opens a resort hotel that is only open on each holiday -- hence the name "Holiday Inn." Many popular song classics were introduced in this film -- "White Christmas," "Easter Parade" "Be Careful Its My Heart." The reason why this film has faded from the holiday movie pantheon is obvious, though. The scene commemorating Lincoln's birthday has the entire cast in black-face makeup in the tradition of old minstrel shows, a concept that is patently offensive to African-Americans. Otherwise, the singing and dancing in this film is top notch.
* "A Christmas Story" I have always loved this film, perhaps because the family culture portrayed in it is very close to what my extended family was like growing up, and that it is set in a fictional town that represents Hammond, Indiana, which might as well be the town I grew up in, being so close geographically. I always enjoyed Jean Shepherd's radio monologues and his books, and this movie is a wonder encapsulation of several episodes from his popular book "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash." My family enjoys watching this movie every year, and I know a complete sub-culture has grown up around it. I've discovered that people either love this film or hate it. I think a lot of it has to do with relating to its mid-western, working class concept. For better or worse, that was my life as a kid, and even though this film is set in 1939, I can relate to it in so many ways.
* "The Nativity Story" A recent entry to my list of Christmas favorites, this is one of the few decent attempts to actually tell the story of Christ's birth in its proper historical setting. Its fairly accurate from a scriptural standpoint, and the portrayal of Mary and Joseph as fallible humans rather than idealized saints is refreshing. I highly recommend this movie.
* "Its a Wonderful Life" Yes, this movie had to make the list. I find it interesting that when this film was released back in the late 1940s, it did not do well, and was largely forgotten until the early 1970s. Then, because the copyright had expired, public television stations began airing it over the holidays because they didn't have to pay for the broadcast rights. When I was in high school, you could watch this film six to eight times a week during the Advent season on a variety of TV outlets. Today, the movie is as much a part of modern American culture as any other film. The message is timeless, and the performances real and meaningful. And if you really think about it, its one of the few movies of its kind where the bad guy (Mr. Potter) doesn't get his comeuppance at the end. But George finds his place in the world, and that makes for a very happy ending.
* "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" This has to be my favorite Christmas movie of all time. Unfortunately, its really a half-hour commercial for the Mormon church. That being said, you don't really realize that until the very end of the film (the hints might be obvious, with performances by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the story set in Salt Lake City, and a scene set on the Temple Square). Jimmy Stewart (the star of "Wonderful Life") is featured here. He plays a lonely widower who lives in a sort of Walter Mitty like fantasy world, where he imagines great adventures for himself. The focal point of the story is when he is visited by a group of Christmas Carolers who are uncomfortable with his shabby little apartment and lifestyle. A little girl leaves her mittens behind, and Mr. Krueger, in his imagination, tries to find her. The highlight of the film is a scene where he is arranging a nativity set on his table, and imagines himself at the very first Christmas, and has a conversation with the infant Jesus. I challenge anyone to watch that scene to not come away with tears in your eyes. It is a remarkable performance, and one that gets to the heart of what Christmas is really all about in a way that few other films have ever done. I have read that Mr. Stewart demanded that the scene be shot in one take, because he did not have the emotional wherewithal to go through it more than once.