Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Dregs of Christmas

2015 update:  another artifact from the old blog.

This year, I thought I'd do a brief rundown listing some of my favorite, for various reasons, holiday movies and TV specials.  These are titles I don't tire of seeing year after year.  They really do hold up.

I'm working on the next Trek entry, but it looks as though it isn't going to come together until after the holiday (please try and contain your disappointment!).  The good part is, the next entry will be a two-episode hot kiss at the end of a wet fist, so prepare yourselves!

So on to the list, in no particular order:

1.  How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)  I just can't get tired of this classic Chuck Jones TV special.  It represents the spirit of the season as well as being faithful to the book.  It's very funny and sweet at the same time.  Another thing I appreciate about this version is its efficiency:  the program doesn't overdo it or add unneeded schmaltz.  FAR superior to the feature film version (and don't get me started on the Horton movie).  And if that isn't enough, need I mention Boris Karloff?

2.  Holiday Inn (1942)  As some of you know, this movie is a tradition with my family:  we watched it nearly every year while I was growing up.  We all know it so well that we tend to speak entire lines of dialogue from it while it's running.  This movie, of course, originated the mega-holiday-juggernaut-hit, "White Christmas."  No, it wasn't the movie White Christmas (1954), even though it is more recognized and has a somewhat similar plot.  Holiday Inn, despite its cheesiness is a lot of fun for me.  Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire are always entertaining with lines like, "A gentle smile often breeds a kick in the pants."  Some of the songs aren't exactly Irving Berlin's finest, but they do at least have a certain cheeky fun to them.  Heck, the movie is worth watching for Astaire's firecracker dance alone.

3.  A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)  I don't need to tell you all much about this one.  I've been a fan of it since I was very young, so much that I remember making a cassette tape recording of the special's audio so I could listen to it over again.  No VCR at the time:  I put the microphone of the tape recorder close to the TV speaker.  Seriously high tech!  Unsurprisingly, the voices used for the Peanuts characters in this special are the ones I still consider to be the "real" voices.  The others just don't seem as right to me (ah, impressionable youth!).  Looking at the show today, I love the music (classic stuff) and the humor still makes me laugh:  "We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big eastern syndicate, you know."  The animation is crude, but it totally fits the material and this holiday special isn't afraid to come out and talk about the actual holiday.  I'm not really a Christian and am as far away as possible from the "war on Christmas" BS, but I've always appreciated the way that this special gets to the point of the holiday in an honest way.  It sure beats, "Jesus is the reason for the season."

4.  Love Actually (2003)  This, in my view can't really be called a classic, (hasn't been around long enough) but I've seen this film often enough to recognize its value as a holiday staple.  It may not age well in the long run, but I still find this "feel good" movie to be one of my favorites.  Yes, it really does deserve the "feel good" label!  The film manages to blend its amusing and bittersweet elements with an overall humanity that really works for me.  The film occasionally loses control of its large collection of stories and characters, but manages to pull it together in the end.  The conclusion, which tidies up many of story lines, has just enough uncertainty to keep it somewhat grounded in the real world.  Not all the relationship issues are resolved happily or with the sentiment of a greeting card.  If nothing else, the story surrounding Bill Nighy's aging rock star character makes the film worth watching.

5.  It's a Wonderful Life (1946)  Again, I don't really need to give this one much explanation.  It too was viewed on a regular basis when I was growing up.  The movie has enough sentimentality ("sentimental hogwash!") for ten holiday movies and is often dismissed because of it or enjoyed only on that level.  Beyond the main message of this movie, the things that keep me from getting bored with the film are the complexities of the ideas, the characters, the great performances of the cast, and the interesting way the film is structured.  The guy who writes DVD Savant has a really interesting take on the film here.  He talks a bit about the background of the movie and a very interesting theory about the way it's put together.  I highly recommend reading it if you're a fan of this film.  One quote:

"It would be fun to write a version of It's a Wonderful Life from Henry Potter's point of view. Potter only wants to bring order and frugality to a messy, mongrelized population and that upstart pipsqueak Bailey keeps gumming up the works.

Other character sketches are so rich they seem to indicate lives outside the movie proper. What was the sordid truth behind poor Violet Bick's reputation? Did Uncle Billy's transgressions drive his brother Peter to an early death? Just what did Miss Davis (Ellen Corby) need the $17.30 for? While George was propping up Bedford Falls, did the notorious playboy Sam Wainwright run Harry Bailey for congress on his war record, and warp American values by passing legislation favoring the plastics industry?

And what about Mr. Welch (Stanley Andrews), the unhappy husband of George's kids' schoolteacher, Mrs. Welch? Mr. Welch hits George for making his wife cry. He's the villain of the moment, but imagine a one-act play about life at the Welch family. They have no kids; she's underpaid and he's out of work. They're trying to be cheerful on Christmas Eve when an unreasonable parent accuses Mrs. Welch of endangering a student, Zuzu. Mrs. Welch breaks down in tears. Mr. Welch stomps out to get drunk. It sounds like something from James Joyce."  Classic stuff.

6.  A Christmas Carol (aka "Scrooge" 1951)  This warhorse has been done a lot, but this is maybe the best filmed version.  I also get a kick out of the Muppet version.

7.  Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)  This is the one Rankin/Bass special I will still sit through and is the standout.  Sure, the Rudolph song was written for a retail store jingle originally, but the story is good and has a message of tolerance (those commie 60s hippies!); come on, it has a gay dentist as a major supporting character!  The old rickety stop-motion animation makes the Charlie Brown specials look sophisticated, but it's still endearing.  And today, the message contained in the song, "There's Always Tomorrow," that you can always put off making your dreams come true, is a bit of a downer if you think about it very much.  But really, who cares?  We're all residents on that Island of Misfit Toys at one point or another.

OK, that's it for this year.  I'm sure I'm leaving something out, but there's always tomorrow...

Have a great holiday, everyone (whatever you're celebrating) and stay ahead of the weather!

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