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 (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 Willie 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.)