Those Christmas Movies

Those Christmas Movies

Written by WL Woodward

I don’t live my life by many rules. Basically, I have two. First, treat others as you would like to be treated. Second, don’t store super glue next to the eye drops. Follow those two rules and with the help of God and family you should be OK.

If you know me you know I am a loner, as solitary as an oyster, to steal a line from Dickens. I leave people alone so they will return the favor. Christmas is an exception. The kids and spouses descend on the house for the day and we have a great time. This year will be a little different with virus awareness, but we won’t be too radical. We usually have friends stopping over all day and Christmas Eve can result in late night Scotch binges. We’ll miss the company this year, but we won’t have those kinds of parties.

This Christmas, in the year we all anticipate looking back on, we will practice what is kind of natural social distancing. Generally, on family dinner nights the girls will stay upstairs watching some Audrey Hepburn movie and the guys will gravitate to the basement family room to listen to music or watch sports. I know this sounds sexist but it’s kind of a natural unintentional phenomenon.

Our former home was 800 square feet, all on one level, so there was no basement “man cave.” What tended to happen was the men would end up in the kitchen and the women owned the living room. My wife couldn’t figure this out until I pointed out the kitchen was where the beer was. The kitchen was tiny, with room for two adults at the breakfast table. Any more than two and one had to sit on the counter, straddle the sink or remain standing. I tended to like standing up. If I leaned against the fridge I not only wound up policing the beer consumption but was in immediate proximity of the desired ale.

At Christmas there is more movie watching both upstairs and downstairs. We all have our favorites, sometimes gender-biased choices such as Die Hard or Bad Santa, and in the case of the sunnier sex, Holiday Inn or Christmas in Connecticut. We have family favorites we like to watch together, and personal favorites perhaps not usually shared. I would like to bring of few of these out for suggestion and comment.

The first movie we typically watch at the start of the season is Holiday Inn from 1942 with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. There is marital controversy surrounding this one. Despite annual protestations from my wife Diana to the contrary, Holiday Inn is not a Christmas movie. It starts and ends with Christmas but goes through all the holidays of the year, including Lincoln’s birthday, with an unfortunate blackface routine that even as a kid I found downright uncomfortable.

The music is all written by Irving Berlin specifically for the movie and includes some old favorites. Holiday Inn was the first movie to feature the song “White Christmas,” which remarkably was not planned to be the hit of the movie. “White Christmas” went on to No. 1 on the charts for eleven weeks in 1942 and is still the number 1-selling single of all time. Dig that.

My second entry is the 1954 film White Christmas. This is an agreed-upon favorite by the whole family and will be watched at least twice during the holiday season. Starring Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen, I remember watching this as a kid on a black and white set and sitting on my parents’ bed. We had a modest home so in order to fit a full Christmas tree in the living room we had to roll the portable black and white into mom and dad’s bedroom. We watched television from the bed for the full Christmas season and I remember sitting in our PJs watching movies like White Christmas, and shorts like A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in stirring black and white.

Again, the music for White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin. The color is gorgeous.  Costumes by the incomparable Edith Head and the marvelous choreography in the movie are a delight to watch. Vera-Ellen’s vocals were dubbed by a friend of Rosemary Clooney named Trudy Stevens, but Vera-Ellen was a wonderfully talented dancer and could emote during dance routines with the best of them. Danny Kaye’s performance is a delightful piece of comic acting and Bing is, well, Bing.

For fans I have a few fun facts.

  • Dean Jagger, who played General Waverly, was actually a few months younger than Bing.
  • In the scene where the Haynes sisters show Crosby a picture of their brother Benny, who Kaye refers to as “Benny, the dog faced boy,” the snapshot is of a grown Carl Switzer, who played Alfalfa in Our Gang.
  • The “Sisters” sequence where Bing and Danny play the sisters was not originally intended to be in the movie. During a film break Crosby and Kaye were goofing around with it backstage. Director Michael Curtiz was floored and insisted they put it in the movie. That scene had to be filmed multiple times because the two guys kept cracking each other up.

The movie A Christmas Story causes controversy in our house. My wife hates it, some of us are ambivalent and two or three love it. I love it, and because I am the paterfamilias and make all the decisions, we watch it. Wait. I just remembered my wife Diana reads this stuff. Because my lovely wife of 46 years is gracious, she allows me to watch it.

I believe most of the ambivalence if not derision stems from the fact this film is shown on a cable outlet for 24 hours straight starting at 8 pm Eastern time on Christmas Eve, running through 8 pm Christmas Day. I like to keep it on as much as possible because Christmas Eve is such a busy time; I might manage to watch it once, if in disjointed parts. I know the movie so well that I don’t need to sit through the whole thing. I can watch a few scenes and then get back to the gift wrapping I should have completed a week previously.

Released to mixed reviews in 1983, I only became familiar with the film when a friend mentioned it was her favorite. Subsequently the movie has become one of mine. Set in the 1940s, the scenes in the movie are indicative of a different time in America when 11-year-old boys could go downtown by themselves and stare at the large holiday displays in the department store windows.

My “Santa” days were in the late 1950s and early 1960s and I vividly remember my mom taking us into Hartford to see the displays in G. Fox, Brown Thompson and Sage Allen in Hartford, Connecticut. The trip always included having dinner in the basement of Woolworth’s, which had an automat eatery. For those too young to remember, an automat was the height of American culinary culture, where there were no waiters or people at the counter, just a bank of vending machines. You put your money into a slot and opened a door to a freshly- (?) made chicken pot pie, a plate of spaghetti or a piece of coconut cream pie.

Like Higbee’s in the movie, the automat and the department stores I mentioned are all shuttered, victims of suburban malls and Burger King. This film raises no small amount of nostalgia for me and several scenes awake personal memories, which my kids must suffer through year after year. I actually had a friend who was talked into licking a frozen piece of chain link fencing at Denslow Park in Windsor Locks, CT. It was true to the movie scene, when the inevitable happened all involved quickly dissipated. Except Mike, who had to be rescued by yes, the fire department. “Flick? Flick who?”

The movie was based on the book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash written by Jean Shepherd. I tell you that because Shepherd narrates the film with terrific panache and appears as the guy in line at the department store who hollers at Ralphie.

Film adaptations of the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol have been done so many times that people forget this was originally a book. The novella, published first in 1843 and illustrated by John Leech, was followed by four more Christmas stories written annually by Mr. Dickens. The story is true Dickens and there is not a person reading this that does not know the tale.

The Muppet Christmas Carol, the Muppets version, is special for a few reasons. The movie was released in 1992 and directed by Brian Henson in his first Muppet production after Brian’s dad, the great Jim Henson and father of the Muppets, died too young in 1990. The movie kept the feel of the characters, which was a real relief because these characters were beloved for the TV shows they appeared in and the previous three Muppets movies. The film is a joy to watch and a puppeteering marvel, with the bonus of the ubiquitous Michael Caine playing Scrooge.

Gonzo is perfectly cast as narrator Charles Dickens and is ably assisted by Rizzo the Rat. Kermit plays Bob Cratchit with Miss Piggy as his wife. Most of the Muppets appear including my favorite, Animal as the drummer at the Fozziwig annual Christmas party. A nice touch is the two crotchety old guys, who hold forth in the balcony for the Muppets’ TV shows, playing Jacob and Robert (Bob) Marley, the Marley brothers who haunt Caine’s Scrooge.

One of my memories of this movie is when we took the kids to see this while it was still in the theater, Christmas Eve 1992. The ages of my children at that time ranged from 4 to 11 and they were driving us crazy at the house with the anticipation of a visit from Santa Claus. We packed them into the car and looked forward to 90 minutes of relative peace.

That year I had read Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and the book was and is great fun. During the beginning where you typically see previews for other films, a simple logo appeared on the screen with the caption, “Coming Soon.”

I stood up and shouted, “THAT is going to be a great movie!” Was I right? Of course right.

Including It’s A Wonderful Life in this list will cause some comments I believe. The movie was released in December 1946 to be eligible for the 1946 Academy Awards but unfortunately met with stiff competition that year, like The Lost Weekend and Mildred Pierce. World War II was a recent memory and audiences were not happy with the dark nature of the movie. Director Frank Capra assembled a wonderful cast, most notably James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy. You may remember the bird that flew around the bank office. That was Capra’s pet crow.

My family is ambivalent on this one as well. Diana makes a face whenever I mention it and she will not watch it. I watch every year and love the movie.  A part of the love comes from watching the movie every year on that bedroom set I mentioned before. But the film has its own merit. Considered one of the greatest films of all time, it made No. 11 on the American Film Institute’s 1998 greatest movies list.

Some honorable mentions:

  • The Bishop’s Wife and its remake The Preacher’s Wife. The latter stars Whitney Houston at the height of her singing power and a song performed with Lionel Ritchie in the setting of his nightclub in the movie brings a tear every time.
  • The Holiday starring Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jack Black and Jude Law, with the great Eli Wallach filling in around the corners. This is Diana’s favorite and she will watch it year-round.
  • National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
  • Home Alone

I can hear the howling already about the movies not mentioned here. That’s OK, I love trouble. Whatever your favorite, watch with a glass of eggnog and some fruitcake. Have a wonderful holiday everyone!


Header image courtesy of Pixabay/Gerd Altmann. Other images courtesy of Wikipedia under fair use.

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