To quote Kermit in one of my favorite holiday songs “I don’t know if you believe in Christmas…but if you believe in love that will be more than enough for you to come an celebrate with me.” So with that spirit in mind, Happy Christmas to all of you, my Gentle Readers.
Last week, I listed my top 5 offbeat Christmas specials, from the hip to the snarky to the cynical to the confused. This week, I wanted to get all sappy and sentimental and list for you what’re probably my top 5 true Christmas classics. I may do a good impression of a grown adult, but these are the five that make me get all misty-eyed and make me remember being a kid on Christmas again…even if I was an adult when some of them came out.
“Zuzu’s Petals! There they are!”
Believe it or not, I didn’t see It’s a Wonderful Life until I was in my late teens. My Mom always rolled her eyes when it was on TV and changed the channel. Finally, one year, I asked her why she disliked it. She told me she didn’t dislike it…it was just always on. She was shocked when I said I’d never seen it, and we got it out of the video store and watched it together. I fell in love with it instantly.
George Bailey always puts everyone else ahead of himself. When his father dies, he gives up his dreams of college and travel to stay in the town of Bedford Falls and run his father’s Building & Loan. When he gets married, he gives up his money and honeymoon to make sure the Building & Loan doesn’t close. And when his absent-minded Uncle Billy loses $8,000 on Christmas Eve, he actually contemplates suicide, because he comes to believe he’d be worth more to his family dead than alive, thanks to a life insurance policy he has. Thanks to his guardian angel Clarence, however, he has a chance to see what life would be like if he’d never been born, making him come to realize how many lives he’d touched, and he chooses life, only to find out how many people are willing to rally to him when he’s finally the one who needs help.
I’m honestly getting misty-eyed typing this as I think of the ending of the film, which is one of the greatest scenes of love and generosity ever caught on film. Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reid give absolutely tour-de-force performances as George Bailey and Mary, his loving wife. And the great Lionel Barrymore gives us one of the most wretched villains ever as the slumlord Mr. Potter. The scenes of the alternate reality of Pottersville are completely chilling, and George’s joy when he returns to the reality he knows and loves is palpable. Frank Capra got nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director for this, and he deserved them as much as Stewart deserved the Best Actor award. Sadly, it got none of them, but this movie’s endurance proves that the Oscars are worth very little in the long run.
“You nauseate me, Mr. Grinch.”
Who doesn’t know the Dr. Seuss story of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, who lives on Mt. Crumpet with his dog Max, hating the Who’s who live below him in Whoville? Do I even need to do a synopsis? Very well.
The Grinch hates Christmas, in particularly the singing the Whos do on Christmas Day. To destroy Christmas, he disguises himself at Santa Claus, shows up on Christmas Eve, and ransacks the Whos’ houses, taking the lights, the trees, the food, the presents, and all. Despite all this, the Whos show up to sing, leaving the Grinch to realize that Christmas’ true value is something he can’t steal, and he redeems himself spectacularly.
With narration by Boris Karloff, animation by Chuck Jones, and a song everyone knows, sung by the amazing basso profundo Thurl Ravenscroft, this piece will endure long after the Jim Carrey live-action remake is all but forgotten.
“I believe… I believe… It’s silly, but I believe.”
Modern society, cynicism, and disbelief threaten the identity, freedom, and well-being of an elfin figure. No, it’s not Changeling the Dreaming. It’s A Miracle on 34th Street.
A fellow calling himself Kris Kringle is outraged when he finds the Santa Claus about to be paraded in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is drunk. He complains to Doris Walker, the director of the event, and she gets him to take the role himself. He’s so instantly believable that he becomes Santa for the flagship store. But trouble brews when it seems Kris really thinks he is Santa Claus, insisting on it to Doris and her daughter Susan. When Kris’ sanity is questioned and commitment seems possible, Doris’ neighbor Fred Gailey, an attorney, steps in, defending Kris and offering to prove that he really is Santa Claus. The result is some delicious maneuvering in court, as Fred cleverly gets the judge, the district attorney, the owner of Macy’s and more to admit that they believe not only that Santa Claus exists but that Kris is him. And Kris wins over even the cynical Susan and Doris, which means more to him than his own freedom.
Again, I’m totally choking up writing this. This movie is just so danged fun and, frankly, heartwarming. I can only imagine its impact on a post World War II in 1947, giving them something to smile about. No wonder it got a Best Picture nomination. With the world as cynical as it is now, it’s time to watch this movie again.
“He ain’t hoirt. Didn’t even break his concentration.”
A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite stories. The Muppets are one of my favorite franchises. So when A Muppet Christmas Carol was announced, I was hopeful, but nervous. No major Muppet productions had come out since Jim Henson had died, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Could a movie deliver both the heartfelt warmth of this classic Christmas tale with the insanity that is the Muppets? Could anyone be Kermit with Jim gone? Fortunately, the answer to both questions is yes.
For those who already know the story of A Christmas Carol, this movie will not bring shocking revelations. Scrooge is a scrabbling miser who mistreats everyone he comes into contact with. He is visited by ghosts who teach him the true meaning of Christmas. He repents his wicked ways, and he becomes one of the nicest people in town. What the Muppets bring is their playful goofiness and their irreverent humor. Gonzo the Great does a fantastic turn as Charles Dickens, dragging a reluctant Rizzo Rat with him through Scrooge’s visions, narrating all the way, even at the cost of bodily harm.
Steve Whitmire proves that he was born to take over the role of Kermit from Jim, and Michael Caine is believable as both the wicked Scrooge and the nice Scrooge, something few actors can pull off. The Muppets they created to play the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future, are by turns fascinating, charming, and terrifying.
The new Muppets movie has certainly relaunched the franchise, but this is a piece of classic Muppets, and it’s well worth enjoying.
“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”
I almost included A Christmas Story in my offbeat special list, but, because we’ve been inundated with it for quite a few years now, it no longer feels so eccentric. And when you step back and take a look at it, A Christmas Story may be the perfect look at what the holidays are really like at their core.
You really need to have been trying to avoid this movie, but here’s a synopsis anyway. Ralphie Parker is an average kid living in Ohio in the 1930s. What he wants more than anything for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB Gun, but his mother is against it, as he’s only 9, and she’s afraid he’ll shoot his eye out. He schemes throughout the movie, trying everything he can think of to get the gift he wants, but he feels stymied at every turn. In the end, though, it may just be that his parents aren’t as oblivious to what he wants as he thinks they are.
This movie is probably one of the most quoted movies around our house, Christmas time or not. It’s full of wonderful dialogue, and the stories are full of a great innocence and, to borrow an overused phrase, childlike wonder. The movie is based on a number of stories by the writer Jean Shepherd, who also narrates the film and has a brief cameo.
If you’ve somehow missed any of these classics, do yourself a favor and see them. They’re worth every minute spent in front of the TV.
Everyone has their own list of classics. Which one of yours have I missed? Maybe you’ll give us all a film to look for next year.