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Schultz reviews: Christmastime movie favorites

Schultz reviews: Christmastime movie favorites

Carl Schultz 

Everybody has a favorite Christmas movie.

It’s no accident that Christmastime is usually among the busiest weeks of the year at the nation’s box office.  It’s actually expected that the most prestigious and highly-anticipated movie releases of the year are placed into movie theaters on Christmas Day itself.  Partly that’s because the nation’s other businesses are generally closed that day, so the moviegoing audience’s attention is undivided.  But for other families, attending a movie on Christmas or watching one on television has simply become a custom.

In past years, Christmas movie releases have included such highly-anticipated pictures as last year’s “Little Women,” Denzel Washington’s long-awaited film adaptation of the August Wilson play “Fences” in 2016, the film adaptation of the stage sensation “Into the Woods” in 2014, the movie version of the Broadway hit “Les Miserables” in 2012, and the enormously anticipated sequel “The Godfather, Part II” in 1974 (with “Part III” debuting on Christmas Day 1990).  And of the five most profitable movies of all time, three--1997’s “Titanic,” 2009’s “Avatar,” and 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”--have been Christmastime releases.

But a Christmas movie is another breed of film entirely--a single picture a person or an entire family includes among their Christmas holiday traditions.  Over the years, there have been more than two dozen motion picture adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”--the first, in 1901, was actually among the first narrative movies ever made, one of the first movies depicting a story instead of just a series of random moving images.  Add animated versions and made-for-television adaptations of Dickens’ story to the list and the total is multiplied.

While Dr. Seuss for years flatly refused to allow any of his celebrated children’s books to be adapted into movies, his wife persuaded him to make an exception in 1966, when the author’s World War II US Army Signal Corps buddy Chuck Jones approached him with an idea to adapt his 1957 tale “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” into a 30-minute animated television special.  Since his last meeting with Dr. Seuss just after the war, Jones had become the top animator at Warner Bros. studio’s famed “Termite Terrace,” and the creator of such classic cartoon characters as Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. 

Dr. Seuss became a full creative partner in Jones’ endeavor, even composing the lyrics to the songs and adding four additional couplets to the ending of his story.  Narrated memorably by horror movie legend Boris Karloff (who had also read bedtime stories to children over the radio during the war years, easing their tensions with his distinctive mellifluous tones), the result was Christmas magic--a holiday staple adopted by millions of new fans every time the cartoon is televised during the holiday season.  Since then, each new generation seems to have a new motion picture version of The Grinch.

Many Christmas favorites, of course, lose their luster over the years.  Produced by Paramount Pictures during World War II, long before the namesake hotel chain opened their first doors, 1942’s “Holiday Inn” became a Christmastime favorite during the early 1960s, when the movie became widely available for television broadcast.  But the picture is hardly seen at all during more modern times, despite having the distinction of being the movie in which Bing Crosby first performed the song “White Christmas,” the most popular holiday tune in history.  

Even with a song score by the great Irving Berlin, the movie about the countryside inn and nightclub which is open only during holidays has dated badly.  The ill-advised Lincoln’s Birthday sequence, performed by the cast in traditional minstrel show blackface, was repugnant even in 1942.  Viewed today in the time of #BlackLivesMatter, the scene is particularly offensive, casting a malaise over the rest of the picture.  The 1954 movie “White Christmas,” a semi-remake of “Holiday Inn” again starring Crosby, seems to have supplanted the earlier film on the nation’s broadcast airwaves.

But other Christmas movies actually gain popularity over the decades.  1934’s “Babes in Toyland” seems to be adding new fans with each screening, due in no small part to the gentle, whimsical humor of its stars, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.  Also known by its European release title “March of the Wooden Soldiers,” the film’s popularity seems to have been augmented when a colorized version of the black-and-white perennial first became available in 1991 (with the exception of an obscure World War II training film, Laurel and Hardy never appeared in a color film).

Produced on the heels of the commercial and critical success of the Academy Award-winning “Oliver!” in 1968, a big budget musical adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” entitled “Scrooge” opened in 1970.  Starring Albert Finney in the title role and featuring a splashy musical score by “Doctor Dolittle” and “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” composer Leslie Bricusse, the film was a box office disappointment during its original release.  But through its release on home video and repeated viewings on cable, the film is also achieving the status of a Christmastime favorite.

Filmmaker Tim Burton over the years has revealed a real flair for depicting the dark and damaged side of the Christmas holiday in a number of his films.  At the end of his 1992 comic book-inspired sequel “Batman Returns,” Burton with a few deft strokes brilliantly captured the aching loneliness of observing Christmas alone, with a broken heart.  But although often eclipsed by the better-known 1993 animated classic “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Burton’s real holiday classic is his 1990 film “Edward Scissorhands.”

Inspired equally by “Pinocchio” and “Frankenstein,” “Edward Scissorhands” is Burton’s fable about a boy with elaborate cutlery for fingers, created by a lonely inventor who dies before crafting hands to the boy’s arms.  Containing a significant message about the importance of inclusion, the picture provided actor Johnny Depp with one of his first important motion picture roles...and a poignant coda to the motion career of movie horror legend Vincent Price as the inventor.  If the very best Christmas classics bring a tear to the viewer’s eye, the closing scenes of “Edward Scissorhands” encourage outright weeping.

Among more modern holiday films, the comedy “Instant Family” is in a class of its own.  Starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne, the film is director and co-writer Sean Anders’ story of a childless couple on the cusp of middle age who open their upscale suburban home to three children who’ve been abandoned by their substance-addicted mother and shifted between shelters all their lives.  Released at the beginning of the holiday season in 2018, “Instant Family became an instant Christmas favorite for many viewers.

With equal quantities of laughter and tears, the impact of “Instant Family” is augmented with the knowledge that the movie is remarkably accurate to the real process of child protection and adoptive services, inspired by filmmaker Anders’ own experiences as a foster parent.  In addition to a chaotic first Christmas celebration as a family, the movie contains the most sidesplitting Thanksgiving prayer in motion picture history.  And if the ending doesn’t coax tears from the viewer’s eyes, he needs to consult a physician--he doesn’t have a heart.

One of the most popular Christmas movies of all, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” was considered nothing special during its original release in 1946.  A return to Hollywood filmmaking for both the celebrated comedy director Frank Capra and the beloved star James Stewart after their heroics during World War II, the picture during its original release barely earned back its $3.16 million production budget, with only $3.3 million in ticket sales from a public which had grown more sophisticated in its movie viewing during the wartime years.

But when a clerical mistake caused the copyright of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to lapse in 1974 and the picture entered the public domain, local television stations quickly learned that the film could be broadcast freely, without rental fees to the film’s distributor.  It was only at that time that the picture became a family favorite--the film could be found almost anywhere and everywhere during the holiday season, at any time of day.  Today, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is prominent on the American Film Institute’s list of the Greatest Films of All Time, and was chosen in 1990 by the National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Everybody has a favorite Christmas movie.  Whether your family’s favorite Christmas stars Scrooge or the Grinch, George Bailey or Clarence the Angel, the Christmastime movie experience has become a tradition celebrated by millions of households.  And in 2020, at the end of a historically turbulent and troubled year, viewing a classic Christmas film might be a wonderful excuse to switch off the news for an hour or two...and possibly to remember that Christmas is the time of miracles.  There are still reasons to rejoice, and better days are just around the corner.

Merry Christmas, and God Bless.

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