- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

By some — ever-reliable — Internet counts, there are hundreds of Christmas films, from the blips on the radar to those stinkers that remain trapped in the cultural cinema consciousness like a sticky poison (“Ernest Saves Christmas,” anyone?).

But what makes a film a Christmas “classic,” i.e., one audiences return to year after year after year for repeat viewing, sometimes years or even decades after first appearing on the scene? As with any relative measures of what makes any film “good” versus “turkey-tastic,” the merits are usually in the eyes of the collective beholders.

For our purposes, let’s say that a “classic Christmas film” equals quality plus repeatability plus a general sense of cultural acceptance into the canon.

Ergo, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” and “Jingle All the Way” will not herein be included.

As with any other list, this one is entirely subjective of both the author’s thoughts combined with an informal survey of friends, acquaintances, co-workers and Spirits of Christmas Past to come up with the top 12. It combines my own picks, votes of others and some dark horse candidates worth another look this holiday season.

If you disagree in any way, kindly send your hate mail to donald.trump@trump2016andforever.com or hillary.clinton@clinton2016herewegoagain.com.

12) “Elf” (2003)

Back in the days before his bumbling benevolence schtick started to wear thin (I’m looking your way, “Anchorman 2” and “Get Hard” and, preemptively, “Daddy’s Home”), Will Ferrell was Buddy, a human adopted by Santa and raised at the North Pole as an elf despite his, uh, Will Ferrell size. Going back to New York to find his biological father (James Caan), Buddy bungles through Gotham in that overgrown man-child fashion that Mr. Ferrell has mastered.

For as unquestionable as his comic skills are, is it just me, or would anyone else really like to see Mr. Ferrell try out a role that requires him to break out of his typical dimwitted nice guy modality? He showed such promise in “Stranger Than Fiction” that it would be a treat to see such talent again in the future. Until then, enjoy “Elf” and his old “SNL” skits.

11) “Holiday Inn” (1942)

It’s Bing crooning versus Fred tapping, pure and simple. The thinnest of plots finds Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire as a pair of entertainers in a yearlong story that stretches from one Christmas to the next at the Holiday Inn, a modestly arranged lodge that puts on spectacular shows for each of America’s holidays — most notably, Christmas. Crosby and Astaire have phenomenal chemistry, even as they vie for the affections of a showgirl (Marjorie Reynolds) — and with those two vying, she’s really up for grabs.

This is the kind of film for which the term “star turn” was invented, as Crosby and Astaire alternate upstaging one another with voice and step numbers, including an absolute showstopper when Astaire performs a July 4 tap routine replete with firecrackers. There’s also the scene where Crosby tortures Astaire and Reynolds by constantly changing the tempo and style of their musical accompaniment in front of an audience.

Yes, there is much to cringe at 73 years removed, most notably a number for President’s Day with Astaire performing in blackface and Crosby remarking, “A lot of people seemed to like the blackface routine. Don’t you think a blackface routine on St. Valentine’s Day would be novel?” This is to say nothing of the stereotypical character Mamie, played with admirable professionalism despite its inappropriateness — as seen through contemporary eyes — by Louise Beavers.

“Holiday Inn” is also notable as the first appearance of the tune “White Christmas,” which won the year’s Oscar as best original song, and which would lend its name to another Christmas classic a dozen years hence.

10) “Love Actually” (2003)

An ensemble of English and American greats brings vibrant spirit to this holiday comedy melodrama from writer/director Richard Curtis, who penned such other British hits as “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and the “Bridget Jones” films.

As Christmas approaches, a disparate group of Londoners deal with the pitfalls and possibilities of love. Standout performances in the all-star cast include Emma Thompson as the middle-age wife of an executive who fears her husband (Alan Rickman) may be trading her in for a newer model, Hugh Grant as the prime minister prone to solo dance parties and the ever-reliable Bill Nighy as a hilariously faded rock ‘n’ roller with a mouth of raw sewage. And Keira Knightly. And Colin Firth. And Liam Neeson. And and and….

Mr. Curtis’ screenplay never panders and treats his characters as people with hopes, dreams and bearing the sting of life’s disappointments. “Love Actually” brims with cheer and possibility as one year draws to a close and another is set to begin.

And laughter. Dear lord, so much laughter!

9) “White Christmas” (1954)

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are a song-and-dance team fresh back from World War II in perhaps the greatest Christmas musical of all time. Directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”), the plot for “White Christmas” is, like many musicals of its day, but a thin clothesline upon which to hang the various numbers, which includes, of course, the titular Irving Berlin classic.

As the former GIs out to romance a duo of sister chanteuses (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen), the inimitable chemistry between Crosby and Kaye tugs the cheeks northward at every moment, particularly during a scene at a Florida juke joint where the men first meet the sisters — Kaye struggling to keep his voice from cracking in near-adolescent discomfort while Crosby mumbles under his breath for his crony to tone it down.

Films like “White Christmas” exist solely as showoff opportunity for the stars, which the four leads run with, all leading up to the old showbiz trope of “one big show” for Christmas Eve as they are backed up by dancers and choruses, all of it choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse.

8) “The Cheaters” (1945)

A dark horse addition is this underappreciated black comedy that tackles themes of greed, duplicity and, ultimately, having the fortitude to do the right thing.

“The Cheaters” finds Manhattan bigwig James Pidgeon (Eugene Pallette) expecting to be named sole heir of his uncle’s fortune, but when news breaks the departed relative has left his entire estate to showgirl Florie Watson (Ona Munson), James and the rest of his Pidgeons conspire to invite her to their New York home for the holidays — under the ruse she is a long-lost cousin — so as to keep her away from all newspaper and radio stories on the search for the heir so the Pidgeons can then claim the fortune (oh for the days before smartphones).

At the same time, daughter Therese (Ruth Terry) guilts the family into taking in a charity case for Christmas — broken-down, alcoholic former star of screen and stage Anthony “Mr. M.” Marchand (the brilliant Joseph Schildkraut). Mr. M soon joins the Pidgeon family subterfuge for reasons of his own — likely due to its being a chance to, well, again play a role. Schildkraut is vibrantly cunning in the role, facing down his demons and seemingly playing all sides while his own motivations in the scheme are never quite clear, even to himself. It’s one of the most unappreciated performance in the history of movies.

The action comes to a climax at the family’s “other” home away from the city on Christmas Eve, where Mr. M descends into a drunken stupor and delivers a monologue that fires up a scene of domestic melodrama with barely any physical action.

For all its strengths, the ending lets everyone off rather easily, which makes “The Cheaters” ripe, I think, for a 21st century remake. For Mr. M, might I suggest Denzel Washington?

7) “Scrooged” (1988)

Meta before it was a thing, “Scrooged” shows off yet another brilliant comedic turn by Bill Murray as high-powered TV exec Frank Cross, visited by those same ghosts who knocked on Ebenezer’s chambers a century and a half prior. But rather than a present adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” “Scrooged” is a modern take on Dickens’ theme of redemption played out in ‘80s corporate environs.

One of Mr. Murray’s abiding strengths as a performer is always seeming like he’s enjoying himself, which infuses every character he inhabits. In “Scrooged” he delights in being mean, cocky and trampling on all below him, his devil-may-care attitude his greatest asset even as an antihero. “Scrooged” would simply have been impossible with anyone else in the role.

Cameos and high-wattage bit players abound, including Lee Majors, Robert Goulet, Mary Lou Retton and Robert Mitchum as a TV exec big-wig, who is heard to pronounce that even “cats are now watching television” and must therefore be marketed to.

Watch for Brian Doyle Murray, brother to Bill, as Frank’s stentorian father, Earl.

6) “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965) / How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (1966)

I’m including these two animated classics as one entry since they invariably played during my childhood as a December Saturday evening double bill. Half a century on, much like the endearing characters themselves, the two shows just don’t seem to age.

In the “Peanuts” story, Charlie Brown and the gang prep for the annual Christmas pageant as luckless Chuck seeks to discover the true meaning of Christmas. Of course, Snoopy is up to his usual tricks and Lucy continually tortures baby brother Linus to lose his cherished blankie. Underlining it all is Vince Guaraldi’s masterful jazz score, including the ever-recognizable “Linus and Lucy” piano theme, frequently accompanied by the “Peanuts” gang busting their limited-by-simple-animation grooves.

In “The Grinch,” narrator Boris Karloff (most famous for portraying Frankenstein’s monster for director James Whale) relates the tale of Dr. Seuss’ sour-hearted, green-skinned monster intent on “stealing” Christmas from the nearby villa of Whoville. The Seussian rhyme scheme still amuses, as does the exceptional animation from “Looney Tunes” maestro Chuck Jones.

5) “A Christmas Carol” (1951)

Dickens’ novel about penny-pinching grouch Ebenezer Scrooge re-evaluating his life after being visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come has been translated to radio, screen, stage and TV dozens of times, with such stellar thespians as George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart and Michael Caine assaying the role, but it was British actor Alistair Sim who, for many, will always be the definitive incarnation of Scrooge.

Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst from a somewhat-liberal interpretation of the source material by screenwriter Noel Langley, the 1951 version of “Carol” lives on Sim’s by-turns maleficent, charming and ultimately human envisioning of the miserly old English goat. Sim’s multifaceted, always-engaging inhabiting of Scrooge anchors the film from start to finish, and it is his singular performance of the Victorian cheapskate that keeps this version so consistently at the top of the list of adaptations (and I say this as one who loves “Mickey’s Christmas Carol”).

While mostly faithful to the novel, where Langley’s screenplay excels is its expansion of Scrooge’s past, featuring a complex performance by George Cole as Young Ebeneezer, who falls from reticent, cautious gentleman into the smoldering villain who rejects his fiancee and drives his own mentor, Fezziwig (Roddy Hughes) out of business — neither without a trace of regret. Also of great addition to the narrative is the invented-for-this-film dark tutor Jorkin (Jack Warner), who first sees the potential of pairing up Scrooge with lifelong chum Jacob Marley.

Sim’s jubilant, incredulous, madcap romp upon waking Christmas morning to realize he has not in fact been banished to perdition cannot be forgotten no matter how hard you try. Filmed as two long takes, Sim brings forth reservoirs of joy that Scrooge has forgotten, so much so that it drives his housekeeper Mrs. Dilber (Kathleen Harrison) from the room screaming.

Often re-interpreted but never quite equalled, Sim remains the Scrooge of the 20th century, with a script by Langley that takes what is a rather uncomplicated story and elevates it to art.

4) “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989)

After ruining the Griswold family’s trips to Wally World and Europe, it was only natural that bumbling patriarch Clark (Chevy Chase) would find some way to turn yuletide joy into a travelogue of domestic hell. As with the previous “Vacation” films, “Christmas” was written by the late, great John Hughes, this time eschewing the earlier installments’ peripatetic structures for homebound comedy as the Griswolds’ suburban Chicago enclave gets populated by an increasingly batty gallery of relatives, from Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and his redneck malapropisms to the delightfully senile Aunt Bethany (Mae Questel).

“Christmas Vacation” is laugh-out-loud hilarious minute by minute and replete with such memorable gags as the houselights continually failing to go on, Snots the dog wrecking everything in sight and, as ever, Clark’s passive-aggressive snideness barely concealing his contempt (to a parade of suits at his office: “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, kiss my a**, kiss his a**, kiss your a**, Happy Hanukkah.”)

The Hughes screenplay even has time to toss in an uptight yuppy couple (Nicholas Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who live next door to the Griswolds, ever the inadvertent victims of Clark’s bungling.

They simply don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

3) “A Christmas Story” (1983)

You know you want one: a Red Rider carbon-action, 200-shot, range model air rifle.

It is that prize for which young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) burns so feverishly, writes so thematically and trudges back up a slide to beg Santa to bring him come Yuletide morn.

Adapted from humorist Jean Shepherd’s book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” “A Christmas Story” weaves together several of “Shep“‘s tales into a fabric of 1950s post-war suburbia as the Parker family preps for annual merriment. Shepherd, who wrote the screenplay alongside director Bob Clark, narrates the film from adult Ralph’s perspective — a character Shepherd refined in radio, TV and film over several decades.

But it is through the perspective of young Ralphie that the story earns its sentimental stripes, seeing “the jungles of kid-dom” through eyes yet unsullied by cynicism and the harshness of the world, a world whose cruelness has all but hammered down Ralphie’s parents, known only as The Old Man (Darren McGavin) and The Old Lady (Melinda Dillon), into barely contained drones of drudgery, soldiering on despite themselves — she at the stove, he in an armchair grousing about the Cubs’ off-season trades.

There was a time in American movies when filmmakers were unafraid of both sentimentality and harshness. And so it is that “A Christmas Story” showcases both the familial joy that comes on Christmas morning while not leaving out the darker sides of childhood, like bullying, lying and even using swear words whether or not adults can hear, including “the big one.”

All the while, it’s Shep’s witty narrative that moves the action along, his character’s impish reflections upon his younger days accompanying Mr. Billingsley’s machinations as Ralphie tries so desperately to get that BB gun — even if it means fibbing his way to the prize.

2) “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947)

Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) believes himself to in fact truly be Santa Claus, so much so that the outstanding “Miracle on 34th Street” opens by having Kris enter a Manhattan store to tell the shopkeep that the order of sleigh reindeer in his window display is incorrect.

He should know, after all.

From the moment Kringle replaces a drunken actor in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float up until the wonderfully ambiguous conclusion on Christmas morning, “Miracle” is Hollywood confection that never scorns or belittles the intelligence of its audience. This is a film about a child (Natalie Wood) who is used to speaking only with adults, and so thus, when she scoffs at Kringle’s self-belief that he is really Santa, their repartee is perspicacious and never forced — the true manner in which these two humans would relate to one another without ever seeming scripted.

“Miracle” is great in so many ways, not the least of which is the Old Hollywood attention paid to casting great actors in minor roles. Furthermore, it is imperative to the film’s success that Kringle is never condescended to, even by those who disbelief him, such as the Macy’s executive (Maureen O’Hara, who died a few months ago) who hires him to field the requests of children at the store. Kringle is certainly a bit off, but his corporate overseers all but stare aghast when Kringle goes rogue and starts telling parents which stores to shop at for toys Macy’s doesn’t carry. (Imagine Wal-Mart sending you to Target, I dare you.)

Endearing from start to finish, “Miracle on 34th Street” features a stellar cast, flawless screenplay and the affable Gwenn in the Oscar-winning role that defined his legacy. Perfect for the whole family, then as now.

1) “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)

Director Frank Capra trafficked in an unapologetic American positivity that bordered on the gullibly jingoistic. But when “It’s a Wonderful Life” hit theaters in 1946, the U.S. was still high on its victory over Japan and Germany and becoming the world’s first superpower, so little wonder that a sprinkling of all-American optimism was brought to bear on this adaptation of Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story “The Greatest Gift.” Also little wonder that Capra, who made propaganda films for the U.S. armed forces during the war, would show various members of the fictional Bedford Springs hard at work in various facets of the war effort.

Jimmy Stewart stars as small-town banker George Bailey, who, when he loses a significant stash of cash thanks to absent-minded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) and town sourpuss Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) contemplates jumping from a bridge on a particularly snowy Christmas Eve. But George’s ploy is sabotaged when an angel in human form named Clarence (Henry Travers) plummets into the river first, spurring George into the chilly water to save him. With George still not cured of his earthly ennui, Clarence, with some heavenly assistance, shows George what bucolic Bedford Falls would be like had he in fact never been born.

Capra provides an unashamed rah-rah fable of Americana that has, at its heart, a perhaps-naive belief in the willingness of the universe to reward the good when all the chips are down. This simplicity in no way detracts from the film’s singular greatness, thanks to amazing performances — including a rascally duo named, yes, Bert (Ward Bond) and Ernie (Frank Faylen), perhaps the inspiration for the Sesame Street pair? — a roster of solid studio players in the cast, alongside a stirring, pitch-perfect screenplay from Capra and co-writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Sure, it’s perhaps a bit hard to digest that everyone in town — with the sole exception of the rancorous Potter — has a heart of gold, but the film’s message of not realizing one’s worth to self and community until crisis ensues remains as relevant today as it was seven decades ago.

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