Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Celluloid Christmas

It's not even Thanksgiving yet and we've already seen our first Christmas show. It was the stage version of It's a Wonderful Life, presented at a local community theatre that I was reviewing last night. I think somewhere there is an unwritten rule that you can't have Christmas without (a) Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas," (b) some production of Dickens A Christmas Carol and of course hundreds of broadcasts of the It's a Wonderful Life movie. I remember a year where you could not turn on the television and search through the channels without finding a broadcast of It's a Wonderful Life on some channel. I may have hallucinated, but it seems to me that some cable channel ran it back to back continuously for a day or two right before Christmas.

I never understood why that has become the quintessential Christmas movie. Maybe it's easier to crown that one with the title than sift through the hundreds of Christmas movies that are out there. I mean it's a nice story and all--and who wouldn't love Jimmy Stewart getting all emotional--but surely there are others as worthy of the attention.

If you think about it, 90% (unscientific number) of all Christmas movies have a predictable structure.

There is a curmudgeon, there is a cute little kid, there is a character who is imbued with the Christmas spirit and refuses to get discouraged, there is an element of magic or good will that softens the hardest of hearts, and, most important of all, the ending leaves me in tears.

They are all variations of the granddaddy of Christmas stories, Dickens' A Christmas Carol. There's curmudgeonly Scrooge, cute little Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchet who is full of the Christmas spirit, his dire straits to the contrary, and the four Ghosts (starting with Marley) to add an element of magic that softens Scrooge's heart and leaves me sobbing as he becomes a friend to Tiny Tim and a good boss to Bob Cratchet. It doesn't make any difference if Scrooge is a venerable old actor, a cartoon character or a muppet. It gets me every time.

My personal favorite Christmas movie is the original (1947) Miracle on 34th Street, where our curmudgeon is Maureen O'Hara, who has just worked for Macy*s too long and has become jaded. Her cute little daughter Susan (Natalie Wood), is following in her mother's footsteps. Neighbor John Payne is determined to let the little girl experience the magic of Christmas, and then a guy named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) adds that element of magic and when Susan discovers Kris's cane in the empty home that was the house of her dreams, my tears begin to flow.

(O'Hara was the curmudgeon again in the 1995 made-for-TV movie,The Christmas Box, starring Richard "John Boy" Thomas as the discouraged father who takes a job as the caretaker for O'Hara's home on the arrangements made by his idealistic wife (Annette O'Toole). Their cute little daughter (Jenna Evans) eventually melts O'Hara's heart with the assistance of a box which takes on the "mystical" qualities that are required to fit my predictable structure.)

At the moment, the Hallmark channel seems determined to run Christmas movies 24/7 until Christmas. This morning I watched Christmas in Aspen, because I can't not watch a John Denver movie, no matter how corny they are. Denver is the discouraged widower with adorable daughter Alix (Gennie James). The whole "mystical town" (as IMDB describes it) is filled with the Christmas spirit and everyone in town, adult and children alike, write letters to Santa each year. Denver has come to assess the town for his boss, curmudgeon Thomas Renfield (Edward Winter) who wants to make the town the next big ski resort and is foreclosing on homes even on Christmas eve. (I'm not sure why the movie is called Christmas in Aspen, since it is not the ski resort and, in fact, is a very small town). The magic of the season puts holly in every heart, the foreclosure doesn't happen, Renfield takes his business elsewhere, and Denver quits his job, decides to move to the town, and starts a relationship with the post office mistress (Jane Kaczmarek). And as they ride off into the sunrise in their one horse open sleigh, I reach for the tissues.

And so it continues from November 13 up to Christmas....A Season of Miracles. Fallen Angel, The Most Wonderful time of the Year, A Christmas Visitor, A Christmas Without Snow, One Magic Christmas, etc., etc, etc. Sooner or later they will get to It's a Wonderful Life, with the curmudgeonly Mr. Potter, out to ruin idealistic George Bailey's Savings and Loan. There are all those cute little Bailey kids and magic Clarence Odbody looking to win his angel wings.

The structure even works for the original Christmas story, except that curmudgeon Herod was never converted and instead of having his heart softened, he killed a bunch of babies instead. But other than that, the structure works!

Nothing's perfect.


I don't want to jinx it or anything, but there is someone interested in Polly. Not until at least after Thanksgiving, but she really seemed to like her. And Polly didn't seem to hate her.

2 comments:

l'empress said...

I still believe I "discovered" It's a Wonderful Life, because I just happened to find it one night when I was babysitting. It hadn't yet become the quintessential Christmas movie; late night tv was filled with old movies that had not been exceptionally successful.

If you really want a story about Scrooge, by all means read Mr. Timothy, by Louis Bayard. It's not a Christmas story, simply a "what happened next." (Mr. Timothy is Tiny Tim, grown up.) I was hoping for more in the same vein, but I never found them.

Governor Jen said...

That structure works for 90% of movies, period. They can just be sappier at Christmas time, because people are more forgiving!