It’s A Wonderful Life
This Frank Capra film was pretty much ignored when it came out in 1946, but it became a holiday staple when it went out of copyright in 1974, and dozens of local TV stations across the country ran it and re-ran it until everyone was thoroughly sick of it. NBC got its claws on it a few years back, and curtailed its infinite loop, usually showing it only twice during the holiday season.
There are three types of people: 1) those who love the film despite being beat over the head with it on television for over thirty years, 2) those who despise it for its sappy sentimentality (and the incessant figurative head-beatings), and 3) those who have successfully avoided it for their entire lives. I fell into the latter category for most of my existence, and was content to remain there, until I was essentially forced to watch it by my wife’s family, who are all type one. As everyone was dissolving into big puddles of tears at the end, I found myself almost joining them. But through sheer grit, fortitude, and more than a little biting the inside of my cheeks, I succeeded in remaining stoic and dry-eyed. Take that, Capra. (SLEEP OPPORTUNITY: If you’re a type two and nothing will ever change that, go ahead and grab forty winks.)
So, yes, the movie is pretty good. Just as Miracle On 34th Street is surprising in how much of a sharp comedy it is, It’s A Wonderful Life often shocks first-time viewers by how grim it is, until the redemption in the last reel. (A Christmas Carol Trivia: Lionel Barrymore, who plays mean old Mr. Potter here, played Ebenezer Scrooge every year on an annual live radio broadcast of A Christmas Carol from the 1930s to the early 50s. He was supposed to play Scrooge in the 1938 film version, but had to drop out for health reasons, and was replaced by Reginald Owen. Some say Barrymore would have been the definitive film Scrooge had he made the movie.)
In order to convince NBC to share It’s A Wonderful Life this year, the Holy Bee had to agree to a little deal.
Up next is the polar (no pun intended) (not a pun, anyway) opposite of the Capra tearjerker, 2003’s Bad Santa — one of the crassest, foulest, and most lovable Christmas comedies in cinema history. The titular “bad Santa” is suicidal, late-stage alcoholic Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton), who uses his yearly employment as a department store Santa to rob said department stores blind.
When you peel back the surface crudity and wall-to-wall profanity, you find a film that actually has a lot of heart. The clever script, which received uncredited assistance from the Coen Brothers, who also produced, is never truly mean-spirited. (When Stokes shreds a child’s advent calendar and eats all of the chocolates in a drunken blackout, he at least tries to make amends by replacing the chocolates with NyQuil gelcaps and candy corn — “they can’t all be winners” — and taping it back up.) The direction by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World) is visually deft and quick-paced. There are also great supporting performances by two comic geniuses no longer with us: John Ritter as the timid department store manager, and Bernie Mac as the head of store security.
Sadly, Bad Santa 2, made this year by different writers and a different director, fails because it’s nothing but surface crudity, missing the poignancy and, yes, subtlety of the original. (SLEEP OPPORTUNITY: If the sight of Santa, red fuzzy Santa pants around his ankles, having loud back-door sex with a heavyset woman in a department store changing room, is just too much for you, grab your sleep now.)
Frosty The Snowman
Rankin/Bass is known mostly for its stop-motion animation, but it did produce the occasional traditional cel animation special from time to time. 1969’s Frosty the Snowman expands on the lyrics of the song (popularized by Gene Autry in 1950) by adding an evil magician, a rabbit named Hocus Pocus, and a race-against-time plot to get Frosty up to the North Pole so he won’t melt. The Big Man himself, Santa Claus, makes a cameo appearance to get the evil magician to change his ways — and write formal apology letters to everyone he had wronged! What it lacks in depth (even The Year Without A Santa Claus had a little bit of layering going on), it makes up for in brevity (it sails across the finish line in about 25 minutes), along with the voices of long-forgotten comedian Jackie Vernon as Frosty, and Jimmy Durante as the narrator — and singer of the theme song, which he performs in his unique style.
Red Skelton’s Christmas Dinner
Like Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, this is an old childhood favorite from 1981 that was shown on HBO for many years. Wholesome family entertainer Red Skelton, like Andy Williams, had politics slightly to the right of Barry Goldwater, but boy was he gifted in the art of pantomime and character creation. He also had a slightly creepy obsession with clowns. He did over 1000 clown paintings though the years. (When asked why, he said “I have a reason…but I don’t want to talk about it.” Creepy, right?)
Luckily for everyone, the clown he played in person wasn’t creepy at all, but utterly charming. “Freddy the Freeloader” was a typical “hobo” style clown, with minimal make-up, a battered hat, and the stump of an unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth. He has scraped together enough funds to treat himself and his pal, “The Professor,” to a nice Christmas dinner, but gets sidetracked by various distractions along the way, including returning a lost dog to its owner, and asking a Christmas tree vendor what he can get for twenty-five cents. (“A pine cone on the end of a plumber’s helper” is the response.) Out of everything here, this may rank the highest on the Syrupy Sweetness Scale (at one point he entertains a literal hospital full of sick children), but if your fillings can take it, it’s worth it to see Skelton in all his mawkish glory, ably supported by Vincent Price as the Professor, and Imogene Coca as a rather absent-minded lady hobo.
I only included this one because the KHBE office would be flooded with mail if I didn’t. Personally, I don’t care for it. The sadistic cartoon slapstick of the “Wet Bandits” is lame, and Macaulay Culkin’s performance is the worst kind of artificial child-acting — alternately hammy and robotic. There appears to be very little going on behind his slightly out-of-focus eyes. Enjoy, if this is what does it for you. (This space could just as easily be filled by The Santa Clause, which I also don’t care for, mostly because if it involves Tim Allen, and isn’t a Toy Story, it will give me painful hives.)
A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All
The old-fashioned Bing Crosby-style Christmas special, by turns staid and silly, has always been ripe for parody. As the A.V. Club website points out, “this type of TV programming is kept alive in the public imagination largely by those making fun of it.” But nobody did it better than Stephen Colbert in 2008. Still using his self-aggrandizing, blowhard “Stephen Colbert” persona from The Colbert Report, he gambols about in a cardigan sweater on an absurdly bright “mountain cabin” set, answering the door for “surprise” guests (including Toby Keith, and a bear), and eschewing traditional Christmas songs in favor of “Little Dealer Boy” (a duet with Willie Nelson) and “Can I Interest You In Hanukkah?” (a duet with Jon Stewart.)
Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
Our final visit to Rankin/Bass land, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is probably the best known of the company’s output…and perhaps the most problematic. Rudolph may be the most American of all Christmas icons — he was created as a sales gimmick to move merchandise at Montgomery Ward in 1939. As the main character in a giveaway storybook, Rudolph’s plight became familiar to seasonal shoppers, and he became even more well-known when his song hit the charts in December 1949. It has been frequently pointed out that the song paints a pretty dark picture of the nature of conformity — Rudolph is teased and ostracized for his freakish red nose, until his deformity proves useful, at which point he’s everybody’s best friend. And therein lies the problem with the 1964 TV special — everyone, including Santa, is such a massive dick to a harmless baby deer that it becomes uncomfortable to watch.
Old-school children’s entertainment did not coddle or sugarcoat. The mean characters were mean. If you didn’t toe the line and be like everyone else, you were shit upon from a great height. The Island of Misfit Toys is for toys that aren’t damaged or defective, just slightly different. (“Nobody wants a Charlie-in-the-Box!”) The special wasn’t saying this was right, but it certainly expected viewers to accept it as a normal state of affairs. Remember that whenever you pine for the “good old days.”
You can at least take comfort in the voice of Burl Ives, which is like audio eggnog. Ives serves as the narrator Sam the Snowman, and performs “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” which was written specially for this special. (This is almost, but not quite, the oldest original animated prime-time TV Christmas special — Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol from 1962 has it beat by two years.)
Olive, The Other Reindeer
Basing an entire Christmas special on a misheard lyric (“all of the other reindeer” in Rudolph) is a bold move, but this hour-long special from 1999 dedicates itself to breaking the mold of traditional holiday specials in a postmodern way, appealing as much to Gen X adults, many of whom were the parents of toddlers or preschoolers by 1999, as to children. The computer animation replicates the look of paper cut-outs on rich 3D backgrounds, and the soundtrack is sprinkled with stuff that appeals to the aforementioned demographic, such as a song by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and a voice cameo by Michael Stipe of R.E.M.
Oddly, the conformity message is still there, but much more soft-pedaled. Olive (voice of Drew Barrymore) is a weird-looking little dog who disappoints her owner (Jay Mohr) by not doing normal “dog” things like chasing cars. After hearing about “all of the other reindeer” on the radio, she decides she isn’t a dog at all, but a reindeer, and heads out on a quest to — you guessed it, the North Pole, in order to — you guessed it, save Christmas.
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol
Most Americans are familiar with British actor Rowan Atkinson due to his character Mr. Bean. This early ‘90s British show was a big hit on U.S. cable stations. The outlandish physical antics of the mostly-silent Bean crossed all cultural barriers, and even people who “don’t ‘get’ British humor” (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean) can find a laugh watching it. But Atkinson’s true triumph was his earlier TV series, the very verbal Blackadder. Each of the four seasons took place in a different era of British history (the Middle Ages, the Elizabethan era, the Regency era, and World War I), with Atkinson playing successive generations of “Edmund Blackadder,” a cowardly, conniving schemer. In 1988, between the third and fourth seasons, a one-off Christmas special was produced, set in Dickens’ Victorian London.
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol flips the script of the traditional story. Ebenezer Blackadder is “the kindest and loveliest man in all of England,” who just barely scrapes by as the proprietor of the “Moustache Shop” (the purpose of which is left wonderfully unexplained, although they do appear to sell moustaches.) “There’d be a lot more [profit] if you didn’t give so much money to the poor,” his servant Baldrick points out. “Yes, but in the ‘feeling good’ ledger of life, we are rich indeed.” “I just wish we weren’t doing so well in the ‘bit-short-of-prezzies-and-feeling-a-gullible-prat’ ledger.”
Things change when the Spirit of Christmas visits him and shows how the dishonest, underhanded maneuverings of his ancestors got them ahead in life, totally corrupting the innocent Ebenezer before day breaks on Christmas morning. The dialogue by comedian and Blackadder creator Ben Elton and his writing partner Richard Curtis (Four Weddings And A Funeral, Love Actually) is brilliant, and is gamely delivered by a parade of well-known British actors — Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miriam Margolyes, Jim Broadbent, Miranda Richardson, and Robbie Coltrane all appear.
The Bob Newhart Show — “His Busiest Season” and “I’m Dreaming Of A Slight Christmas”
Like Jack Benny before him (the “Christmas Shopping” episode of The Jack Benny Show was a strong contender for this marathon) and Jerry Seinfeld after him, Bob Newhart knew that to own the center of a strong sitcom was not necessarily to be a great comic actor, but to be a great comic reactor. To respond to whatever comic mayhem is swirling around with a perfectly timed pause, a deadpan glance, or a quick, wry remark is to bring the house down every time.
Lots of folks love Bob’s 1980s show, simply called Newhart, where he played a Vermont innkeeper, but it never quite clicked for me. Give me his 1970s show, The Bob Newhart Show, and you can keep your Larry, Darryl & Darryl and your goddamn Mary Frann sweaters. (Sweater-hating seems to be a running theme, I’m noticing.) In the earlier show, Bob plays Dr. Robert Hartley, a Chicago psychologist dealing with his eccentric patients and slightly neurotic co-workers at the medical office, and a sweet but needy neighbor (the awesome Bill Dailey as Howard) at home. Sharing his “adventures” is his smart, level-headed wife Emily. The whole thing is pretty low stakes, and that’s what makes it great. Newhart works small and quiet.
The early-70s, shag-carpeting, plaid-sport coat vibe, along with the fact that Bob and Emily are happily childless, combine to form a picture in my imagination of how my parents existed in the few years between their marriage and my birth (a period which coincides perfectly with the first two seasons of the show.) There is a famous story about a network executive suggesting to Newhart that they retool the show, have Emily get pregnant, and add an adorable child (or two) to the cast, and turn it into a family sitcom. “That’s great,” said Newhart. “Who are you going to get to play Bob?”
I couldn’t decide which Christmas episode of the show to use, so I decided to go with two. Season one’s “His Busiest Season” from 1972 has Bob treating his own holiday blues by inviting the members of his group therapy session to his apartment for a big Christmas party — blurring the line on the whole doctor-patient relationship thing. (As Newhart has pointed out frequently, Bob Hartley is a “terrible psychologist.”) Season two’s “I’m Dreaming of a Slight Christmas” from ‘73 has Bob reluctantly going in to work on Christmas Eve afternoon for a single therapy session, then getting stuck there as a blizzard strikes Chicago.
As you watch, pay particular attention to the background music, where several holiday-themed pieces are woven in with the typical sitcom musical cues, both as part of the overall soundtrack, and emanating from TVs and radios as part of the scene. I don’t know if TV networks still have access to full orchestras these days, but they’re underutilized if they do.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation is a solid flick, but never goes beyond its parameters as a semi-raunchy “80s comedy.” (Its immediate sequel, European Vacation, does not merit further mention.) 1989’s Christmas Vacation may be cut from the same cloth as the original, but has somehow transcended its origins and has been taken to America’s collective bosom as a bona fide holiday classic, spinning off merchandise (I have a Christmas Vacation ornament, coffee mug, and shot glass set) and entering the national vocabulary. Everyone knows what a “Griswold house” is when discussing Christmas lights, and everyone who has hosted a big family dinner has dealt with their equivalent of a Cousin Eddie, or a senile Aunt Bethany. (“Don’t throw me down, Clark.” “I’ll try not to, Aunt Bethany.”)
Doting father and husband Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) attempts to have a perfect “fun old-fashioned family Christmas,” by inviting his elderly parents and in-laws for a two-week holiday visit. The results are a perfect screwball farce, a throwback to the anarchic comedies of the 1930s, where the comedic situations crash into each other like runaway train cars until attractive women are mauled by dogs with sinus conditions, elderly men clutch smoldering toupees to their chests, squirrels are threatened with destruction by hammer, and an ordinarily reasonable housewife greets the SWAT team that just crashed through her picture window by offering the hand that had previously been attached firmly to her husband’s testicles. Toss in an electrocuted cat, some steaming raw sewage, and an odd, pudgy youngster with an “unidentified” lip fungus for good measure. If all of this seems somewhat tasteless, then the true triumph of Christmas Vacation becomes clear: it’s not tastelessness for tastelessness’ sake, but woven into a larger tapestry depicting a warm, cheerful celebration of all that Christmas means to the modern American.
A Very Murray Christmas
When Chevy Chase left the original Saturday Night Live cast, he was replaced by the prickly, unpredictable Bill Murray. Murray has since gone beyond being just a comic actor, and has become something of an urban legend, a figure of American folklore, randomly appearing at unsuspecting folks’ parties and weddings, or popping up on a PGA golf course, playing like a gifted amateur in clothes he clearly slept in for three days — then disappearing back into the ether. It’s common knowledge that he has no agent or manager, and if you want to pitch him a movie idea, you have to know a special phone number and leave a message. The phone number is one of the most closely guarded Hollywood secrets since the days of Rock Hudson.
When Murray decided he wanted to put together a Christmas special in 2015, everyone agreed this was a logical move, since he was becoming something of a national mascot. Unlike Colbert’s “special,” A Very Murray Christmas is not so much an outright parody of those old-fashioned Christmas specials, but an updated version of the real thing, adding a veneer of melancholy and a dash of New York hipsterism (although Murray is from Chicago, and currently lives in South Carolina). It is directed with indie-flick earnestness by Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation), and tells the story of Murray’s attempts to broadcast a live Christmas Eve special from the posh Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan, but a blizzard has shut down the city. After a round of boozy singalongs in the Carlyle bar with the hotel staff and stray guests trapped by the storm, Murray passes out and gets the Christmas special of his dreams, featuring a dazzling Christmas set, a full orchestra, and Celebrity Guests™ George Clooney and Miley Cyrus.
A Christmas Story
Like It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story bombed in theaters upon its 1983 release, and didn’t become a holiday tradition until it began appearing on TV a few years later. For those of you living under a rock for the past thirty Decembers, A Christmas Story is a period comedy set in a frigid Indiana December circa 1940, detailing the lengths nine-year-old Ralphie Parker has to go to in order to convince his parents that he needs an “official Red Ryder 200-shot range model air rifle” for Christmas.
Based on the writings of humorist Jean Shepherd, which were in turn based on the autobiographical ramblings of his late night radio show, A Christmas Story is episodic rather than plot-driven, each incident following another like a string of Christmas lights, and roughly corresponding to a chapter in Shepherd’s book of essays In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. There are also numerous day-dreaming fantasy sequences of just the sort a nine-year-old would concoct, where he is either the family-saving Hero, or the cruelly put-upon Martyr, mistreated by cold, unfeeling parents and sadistic teachers.
Peter Billingsley as a child actor is everything Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone isn’t — natural, sympathetic, expressive. And Darren McGavin as his father (only ever referred to as “The Old Man”) is revelatory — people look at me oddly when I say it’s one of the greatest film performances of the 80s, but seriously, watch him. Every emotion is shown not only on his face, but with his body, limbs, and posture. It is one of the most committed acting jobs I’ve ever seen.
And the period detail is pretty painstaking. Billingsley, now a successful film producer and a peer of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, is fond of telling the story of a flight attendant telling him he looked just like the little boy from A Christmas Story, but “you can’t be him, because that movie was made so long ago he must be seventy years old by now.” That says a lot about the verisimilitude of the Depression-era look of the film…or about the relative intelligence of flight attendants.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas
The 1957 storybook was fine as it was, but the 1966 animated special was sublime. By harnessing the talents of director Chuck Jones and voice actor Boris Karloff to the immortal words of Seuss, a classic was born. Remember during our Bob Newhart discussion I talked about reaction and timing? Chuck Jones can make two-dimensional animated cartoon characters do that.
KHBE will definitely not be showing the loud, garish, overbaked mess of a live-action version starring Jim Carrey, which is the cinematic equivalent of a migraine.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Charles Schulz always hated the name Peanuts for his comic strip. It was foisted upon him by some idiot suit at United Features Syndicate when the strip started back in 1950, and he felt he couldn’t say no at that early stage. Schulz believed (correctly) it was deeply stupid name, and you’ll notice it’s hardly ever used for anything beyond the title on the comics page, including this Christmas special. Cute as the recent CGI movie was, calling it The Peanuts Movie would have Schulz spinning in his grave. Schulz also believed (correctly) that his strip had pathos, gravity, and dignity — none of that is reflected in the name “Peanuts.” The theme of the strip was little kids — representing all of us, regardless of age, because we’re all small in a cosmic sense — grappling with heavy philosophical questions, and concepts such as repeated failure, rejection, and fortitude in the face of such things. Also, there was occasionally a beagle in goggles pretending to be a World War I flying ace.
Animated TV specials were still in their infancy in 1965, when A Charlie Brown Christmas made its debut, but it was already breaking conventions, right from the opening scene when Charlie Brown complains the Christmas season makes him depressed. The dialogue is spoken by actual children, which was unique at that time and adds a layer of realism not yet heard in animation. Rankin/Bass used boisterous musical numbers, with everyone frolicking in the woods or whatnot, to solve whatever problem had arisen. The music in A Charlie Brown Christmas is quiet jazz meditations by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Sometimes the music works through Christmas themes, such as “O Tannenbaum” and “What Child Is This,” at other times it offers moody Guaraldi originals, such as “Skating” and “Christmas Time Is Here,” which have become classics in their own right. (And of course, “The Bouncy Peanuts Piano Music Everyone Knows,” which goes by the actual title “Linus And Lucy,” and made its TV debut on this special.)
Charlie Brown traces his depression to the over-commercialization of the holiday season (there is a similar message in Grinch.) He attempts to fight the powers-that-be by selecting a tiny, sick-looking natural Christmas tree for the school pageant, instead of a huge “aluminum” tree that the other kids want. (Was this really a thing in the mid-60s? Aluminum trees?) Charlie Brown is laughed at and humiliated by the others, until Linus schools them on the “true meaning of Christmas” by quoting Luke 2:8-14 in the special’s dramatic and emotional climax. Thoroughly chastened into behaving better, the kids decorate the little tree and make it work, closing with a rousing rendition of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” which was actually performed by the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Children’s Choir of San Rafael, CA (who were paid five dollars each and given ice cream.) Schulz purposely chose a take that was slightly off-key, so it would sound more “real.”
It was all OK — for now. The week after Christmas, once Linus’ religious guilt-trip had worn off, Charlie Brown would be everyone’s punching bag again. So it goes.
A Christmas Carol
We close the marathon with my favorite Christmas story of all time. The novella by Charles Dickens was first published in 1843, and caused a huge sensation. Not only did charitable donations skyrocket in subsequent years, it completely revitalized the Christmas holiday itself in England, which had been languishing, partly forgotten, since the fun-hating Puritans cracked down on it in the 17th century.
But which version to show? It’s been adapted for film and TV literally hundreds of times, and it’s pretty hard to screw up. There’s the much-loved A Muppet Christmas Carol, a recent Disney CGI version with Jim Carrey that’s quite watchable, a 1971 version with Albert Finney represented one of the last of the lavish, old-fashioned Oliver-style musicals, and so on. But there have been horrible trainwrecks, too — a 2004 musical version starring Kelsey Grammar and other NBC stars was the holiday equivalent of a dumpster fire. (Jason Alexander as Jacob Marley? Pass.) I’ve narrowed the field down to four “definitive” versions:
- The 1938 film version, with Reginald Owen as Scrooge — Shows up on TV more than any other version. I’m a pop culture historian, so far be it for me to say something is “too old” to be enjoyable…but this is too old to be enjoyable. Stiff, creaky, with incredibly dated acting styles. A museum piece.
- The 1951 film version, with Alastair Sim as Scrooge — Produced in the U.K. and released there under the title Scrooge. Also turns up on TV quite a bit, and for a long time this was considered the one to watch.
- The 1984 TV version, with George C. Scott as Scrooge.
- The 1999 TV version, with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge — Stewart has done a one-man version of A Christmas Carol live on stage quite frequently since 1988. The 1999 TV movie showcases his expertise in the role, and also drops some hefty coin on visual effects.
I have chosen to go with the 1984 George C. Scott version, mostly on the virtues of Scott himself. One of the few Americans to tackle the role of Scrooge, Scott (like Darren McGavin in A Christmas Story) turns in a performance that should be studied by acting students everywhere. He is a brooding, intimidating presence in the first portion of the story, delivering Dickens’ words with an icy glare and gruff matter-of-factness. In his own mind, he’s the reasonable one, after all. It’s the rest of the world that’s gone crazy with this Christmas nonsense. After the ghosts work their magic, Scott radiates geniality and avuncular warmth.
And now, the clock strikes midnight for us, just as it did for Scrooge. You must be tired from sitting on your ass for 36 hours, occasionally napping. I know it wears me out. We’re now on the line separating the 23rd and 24th. Go to bed and have visions of sugarplums. A nightcap helps. Go ahead and polish off that bottle of peppermint schnapps.