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48 Essential Short Stories: Prof. Dennis Cutchins’ List

On “This’ll Take A While”, host Dean Duncan invited friend and fellow Professor Dennis Cutchins into the studio to discuss short stories. The one episode turned into two shows talking about the art of short stories and Dennis Cutchins left us with a list of the best short stories to read.

Short Stories Part I

Short Stores Part II

Edgar Allen Poe:

“The Tell-Tale Heart”

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”

“Murders in the Rue Morgue”

“The Purloined Letter”


Mark Twain:

“The Jumping Frog”

“The Story of the Good Little Boy”

Ernest Hemingway:

“The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber”

Stephen King:

“Sometimes They Come Back”

“Quitters Inc.”

Ray Bradbury:

“A Sound of Thunder”

“The Fog Horn”

“The Veldt”

Ambrose Bierce:

“Moxon’s Master” (1893 The first robot story I know of)

Ursula LeGuin:

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

JD Salinger:

“Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut”


F Scott Fizgerald:

“Babylon Revisited”

Henry James:

“The Pupil”

Herman Melville:

“Bartleby the Scrivner”

Joyce Carol Oates:

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

John Cheever:

“The Swimmer”

“The Enormous Radio”

Donald Barthelme:

“The School”

“Some of Us had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby”

O. Henry (William Henry Porter):

“The Last Leaf”

“The Gift of the Magi”

John W. Campbell:

“Who Goes There”

HG Wells:

“The Chronic Argonauts”

Conan Doyle:

“The Speckled Band”

James Joyce:

“The Dead”


Thomas Wolfe:

“The Child by Tiger”

“The Lost Boy”

Flannery O’ Connor:

“Good Country People”

"A Good Man is Hard to Find”

Sherwood Anderson:

“Winesburg, Ohio”

Stephen Crane:

“The Blue Hotel”

“The Open Boat”

William Faulkner:

“Red Leaves”

Jack London:

“To Build a Fire”

WW Jacobs:

“The Monkey’s Paw”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman:

“The Giant Wisteria”

Washington Irving:

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

Nathanial Hawthorne:

“Rapacinni’s Daughter”

“Young Goodman Brown”

Kate Chopin:

“A Pair of Silk Stockings”

“The Story of an Hour”

Christmas Movies, pt. 2

This list was compiled by Dean Duncan, a professor of film at BYU, and host of This'll Take a While on BYU Radio.


Directed by Brian Desmond-Hurst 

UK, 1951

What with the warm mythological haze of childhood ritual—this version, every Christmas Eve, from memory's advent to this sad exile in the soul-chilling USA—it's hard to bring any kind of proper critical perspective to this property.  Well—maybe not hard, but I just don't want tae.  Yes, there's a little bit of poverty in the production, or at least the tightened belt of post-war austerity.  (It's also badly in need of a proper restoration.)  Some of the casting falls a bit short.  A couple of sequences don't quite come off.  It's the same with the source, isn't it?  (Tiny Tim is an effective conceit, and a great reproof, and kind of all wet.)  But if this hastily assembled little seasonal novella isn't quite Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend, it's still got more fierceness and majesty and tenderness than you can ever exhaust, contain, or apply.  By accident maybe, and out of his own childhood sorrows, as well as his own imperfect, striving discipleship, Dickens fashioned something for the ages.  A sinner, repents!

As for the film, because of the source (get a load of that language!), because of its own modest, craftsman's qualities, not to mention the contributions of grand/parents and siblings and native soil, it stands more or less impervious.  "Fan!"  Alastair Sim is a genius.  And for some reason that little fragment of "Barbara Allen," especially at the start of the harmonies on that second verse, is overwhelming.  Death.  After?  

The Jolifou Inn

Canada, 1955

Directed by Colin Low

Full of Cornelius Krieghoff's nice, picturesque paintings of rural Quebec in the mid 19th century.  There's a striking idea, an amazing insight nestled right in the middle there.  According to these period images, and the period sentiments that support them, winter in those good, hard old days came almost completely as a relief and a respite.  Not near as much farm work to do!  Also, since this Anglo-Albertan director was on the brink of becoming as major as it is possible for a filmmaker to be, look at that imagery!  Cameras fly across that painted canvas surface, nearly to the point of dropping right inside.  Not great, but with seeds of greatness—here comes City of Gold.  

Watch the film.

Watch the film that followed (watch for how they render the photographs!) 

A non-Quebecois, speaking for Quebeckers?  Unless you're Robbie Burns, and the dialect is (sort of) your own, then dialect poetry doesn't seem to pass muster anymore.  William Henry Drummond, an Anglo-Irish emigrant to Canada, demonstrates why we might want to revisit that assumption.  Dear, devoted: The Habitant and other French-Canadian Poems (1897).  Watch

Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman

Directed by Roman Kroitor

Canada, 1953

With this film Kroitor set out to combine the visual aesthetics of Carol Reed/Graham Greene's The Third Man with the New Testament's estimation of the unutterable importance of the smallest sparrow that falls.  The result is not only one of the chilliest films in the world—we don't want to be stereotypical or anything, but Winnipeg in the middle of the winter!—but one of the very greatest.  The Beatitudes, the Good Samaritan (dismissed outsider as moral exemplar) and Matthew 25: 31-40 all rolled up in one.  Perfect, perfect, perfect.

See it

The Days Before Christmas 

Directed by Stanley Jackson, Wolf Koenig, Terence McCartney-Filgate

Canada, 1958

The Maysles and Frederick Wiseman quite properly get celebrated for their pioneering observational documentaries, in the 60's and afterwards.  But they didn't invent the approach, nor were they the first to apply it to perfection.  Exhibit A.  Co-director Koenig not only cited Cartier-Bresson's notion of the decisive moment in photography (cf. C-B's seminal 1952 book), but he was able to absorb and then translate it to cinematic settings, to his moving, durating, documentary films.  It's a matter of cinematic method, as well as moral sensibility—equal parts penetrating and compassionate.  Watch, wait, see, be.  The Christmas setting gives this one a special warmth, or on occasion, an extra ironical chill.  The cold-hearted Scots mother, giving bare comfort to her exiled child!

Regardez (watch)

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Directed by Jacques Demy

France, 1964

Be careful about imprudent mis/alliances, young people, or you may one day find yourselves heartbroken on a devastatingly beautiful Christmas Eve at a French Esso station with the snow softly falling all around you.

Blades and Brass

Starring various hockey legends! 

Canada, 1967

The Tijuana Brass pastiche that serves as the soundtrack is very of its time, and it’s not much more than a gimmick.  But music has that ability of conforming itself to images, and what images!  Sharp, beautiful colour, a poetic combination of real time and slow motion, of straight on and high angle.  There’s not much coherent hockey going on, at least in terms of game narratives, or league overview.  In fact, in some ways, the image assembly is kind of perfunctory.  But ideas do emerge eventually, or a kind of structure—there’s a fighting section, and an injury section, and someone sure seems to favour the Habs.  That’s the greatest thing, for someone like me with a dim memory of the primordial figures.  This is original six, and the last year before expansion, too.  Get a load of these players!  There are insufficient glimpses of Howe and Horton, Mikita, Bobby Orr.  There are lots of role players, and a sense of how very important they are.  There’s the Gumper, flopping bravely all over the place.  There’s the question of how exactly Ed Giacomon got into the Hall of Fame.  And look at Bobby Hull skate!  And how magisterial Beliveau is!  A noble ruin of a film, giving a pretty good idea of a lost, past plenitude.

Skate! (watch)

My Night at Maud's

Directed by Eric Rohmer

France, 1969

Eric Rohmer's brainy dramatization of Blaise Pascal's wager, mingled with reflections on the relationship between mathematics and morality, and with a little Mozart thrown in.  Also, set on a snowy Christmas night.  Festive!  Actually, love and mercy. 

(Pascal's wager is here, in section 233.  The rest of the link leads us beautifully up to and away from the actual famous statement.  It's all really good.  Here's a summary:  

Also, check out Roberto Rossellini's rigourous, rapturous biopic, Blaise Pascal (1972).

Mon Oncle Antoine

Directed by Claude Jutra

Canada, 1971

Medieval serfdom, set in the 20th century.  Begins cheerily, saucily (adult film!), youthfully.  Then, the ashes.  Christmas, Catholic world view, Duplessis in power. This doesn't look hopeful, but A Change is Gonna Come...

Une Vieille Boîte/An Old Box

Directed by Paul Driessen

Canada, 1975

There are so many cool animation styles that are beyond me.  Uncool ones are also beyond me.  

This film is another take on the little match girl, now in a modern urban setting, and with a dispensable old guy replacing the Dickensian child.  Andersen posits plenty/sufficiency as natural, so that poverty registers as an especial affront.  Here things are pretty bleak generally.  Where Andersen, appropriate to his child protagonist, sticks to what she has seen and what is nearby, Driessen extends the match girl’s visions spatially and temporally.  His main character, appropriate to his greater experience, envisions sufficiency that is long ago and far away.  As a result the message isn’t just or even widows-and-fatherless (James, 1:27) political. It is Christian.  The final stop in Bethlehem is stunningly indirect.  (Cf. Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort, in which the final, agonizingly delayed union does take place, but it is withheld from us).  After that the guy doesn’t freeze to death. He’s just discarded, as is appropriate to the coldly sparse setting.  In contrast, then, what a resurrection!  

Ici (details)

The Sweater

Directed by Sheldon Cohen, after a story by Roch Carrier, who also narrates

Canada, 1980

A happy answer to Jutra's chilly view of pre-Quiet revolution Quebec (q.v.).  Dark times aren't always and only awful.  This bright film's fame and acclaim are actually fully justified.  You can still say things about that which has been thoroughly discussed.  I just don't want to.  

Well, except for this.  (Here comes some preposterous hyperbole, indulged in so as to be properly enthusiastic about two worthy things.)   Not since Danny Kaye 1953 (Amazon) has anyone so successfully, so joyfully narrated a children's story.

Fanny and Alexander

Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Sweden, 1982

Superstar/high-modernist director Bergman's culminating work, and a masterpiece. (And doesn't it know it!)  The long middle section echoes some of IB's most noted preoccupations about doubt and faith and stuff.  It's severely clear, admirably cruel, bracingly hopeless.  The last section is quite distinct, all mystical and magical, dark and occultish, full of layers and ambiguities.  The really long opening section sets the scene for all the dizzying stuff that follows: neuroses, resentments, betrayals—the usual August Strindberg/Ingmar Bergman specialities. More powerfully, though, this first section also provides what is about the most Christmas-y assemblage in film history.  Upstairs and downstairs, Masters and Men scurry festively all over, surrounded by seasonal food and lights and singing and dancing and everything.  It's all very beautifully designed and staged, very evocative historically, very inspiring with regard to your own observations.  (But should one try that trick with the matches?)  

The TV version is longer, and even better.  Also, this is a legitimately, markedly adult movie.  Proceed accordingly. 

A Christmas Carol

George C. Scott is Scrooge

US, 1984

Lots of TV production values.  George C.'s accent slips a bit.  That ghost of Christmas yet to come is a bit silly, if you want to think about it overly.  But the text is very well served and, especially, very well delivered.  Actors!  Many of them find something new, or something more to say with these super and now over-familiar characters.  Or, they're just really fine in their own right.  Scott. Rees.  Finlay and Woodward and Warner!  The latter is married, in this film, to Susannah York.  Flash back to the two of them, all antagonistic in Tony Richardson, 1963.

Look at them now, so sweetly reconciled.  It's stirring, somehow, these people dedicating their lives to performing things that might instruct and inspire us. Also, what Warner's Cratchit does on the subject of Tiny Tim is exceptionally true and beautiful.  Such little ones, and all the world to us.

“...Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child...” 


Directed by Joe Dante

US, 1984

My younger, more wide-eyed and Capra-corny self was very perturbed when this movie first emergéd, mostly because of that nastily contrived dad-died-at-Christmas story that Phoebe Cates delivers toward the end.  Impiety!  How dare they profane It's a Wonderful Life?  More, what mean-spirits!

Now, in my antiquity, I see it all a bit differently.  A comparison.  The Pythons' Life of Brian has no quarrel with Jesus, but rather with some of the dumb-and-worse things that his adherents get up to.  In the same way Gremlins is not so much anti-Christmas as anti-E.T (you know, o'er wondrous o'er sentiment).  Knowing that puts the stuck-up-the-chimney thing into a different light.  Same with all those gleefully malicious titular creatures.  (You should see them in the sequel!  [Really...]) 

Life of Brian likes Jesus well enough, but it doesn't believe in him, and as a result goes well into offensive territory on a number of occasions. Inadvertently, I think, but still, and actually.  I guess the viewer chooses which one to key on.  Same thing here.  Gremlins, as it goes gleefully along, misbehaves quite a bit.  Be bothered.  Don't.  Remember, though, all didacticism and no anarchy makes childhood a pretty smothering place. Read Luke, chapter 2.  Sleep on it.  Then put on Jerry Lewis.   

One Magic Christmas

Directed by Philip Borsos

US, sort of, 1985

This is kind of like The Great Mouse Detective or Rescuers Down Under.  Something good is starting to happen in Disneyland, but they’re not quite there yet.  Encouraging, though.  Could be the Canadian components.  (Look closely.  Those with eyes to see, let them see...)  

Anyway, here’s an honourable updating and commercialization of the Scrooge myth, in which a disappointed pilgrim is dragged through a therapeutic round of tribulation on the way to being wrapped in the arms of redeeming love.  (Also another entry in annals of crafty or cowardly substituting Santa Claus for Jesus.) Some tribulation!  Protagonist Ginny Grainger’s travails are so punitive as to be practically sadistic.  They sure sweeten the restorations, mind you, especially with all of those little Molly Monahan grace notes that we encounter on the way.  In fact, in some small measure, this is a bit like Carl Dreyer's magisterial masterpiece, Ordet (Denmark, 1955).  The little miracles almost make the big miracles unnecessary.  (It's a bit like Dreyer...)  The husband is a terrific creation, virtue both plausible and interesting.  The children are exceptionally beautiful.  The North Pole is completely successful, especially the variation with the elves.  Harry Dean St. contributes one of film history’s strangest performances.

The Sure Thing

Directed by Rob Reiner

US, 1985

More secular/Jewish than Christian/Christmas, I think.  But it does take place over the December break.  Road trip!  Starts with crass males, making crassly male assumptions.  These are complicated when said males come into contact with actually sentient, independent, intelligent females.  Suddenly crassness starts to have a tough time of it.  Comedy, with a message for its intended audience: appetite notwithstanding, you have to be ethical.  Sex-comedy (which, after all, acknowledges a challenge/question/problem that has to be faced on one's way to healthy, happy, fulfilling adult relationships) surprisingly and quite sweetly turns into something more fraternal, and even chivalric.  Funny, and gets around to setting a good example to boot.

Roger and Me

Directed by Michael Moore

US, 1989

Speaking seasonally, this documentary records some forced evictions that take place on Christmas Day, or thereabouts.  These evictions understandably stimulate glancing harsh language from the newly dispossessed, the which language gives this film an R-rating, which causes many people not to see it, and therefore spares them from a chance to seriously consider some of the more unseemly common practices of the entrepeneurial capitalism that they so strongly, even idolatrously espouse.  Mind you, this direness is not the whole of that picture.  Mind you further, Mr. Moore does, indeed, have a thing or two to answer for.  But GM was in conspicuous profit at the time, was it not?  "Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouses?"

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Directed by Henry Selick

US, 1993

This is a really remarkable allegory, even if it was somewhat unintended by the filmmakers, or uncomprehended by some viewers who thought it reflected an eroding of Christian values.  It's certainly more remarkable, more substantial than is suspected by all the people who just got geeky over it. 

Consider.  The world is media-supersaturated, and it's full of crime and casual horror.  This results in nostalgic longings for the way things used to be, even if maybe things didn't really used to be that way at all.  A perfect circumstantial setting for a fable about that same battered, super-secular world, though now stylized and stop animated into unrecognizability.  Things are hard, but not exclusively.  Bad things happen here, but it's also where we live, together.  Not quite innocence and monstrosity!  (Was this Lot's idea as he bargained with the Lord on the brink of S & G.s destruction?)  


Nightmare... is not informed by the horror film's usual antecedents or sensibilities—Poe's grotesqueries and madness, Dostoievsky's wracking self-doubt, his quavering faith and frequent, seeming self-loathing, Kafka's inexorable, multiplying menaces.  Rather, in Selick's (and Burton's) fantastically realized land of waking, and of cheerful (!) nightmare, all that 20th century stuff is so familiar that it's become the norm, no longer even questioned.  The comfortable mayhem is even commercialized as the film craftily lampoons its own commodification, even while reaching deeper into the significance therof.   

This is the context in which Jack Skellington's accidental view of an unironically perfect Christmas world generates a yearning in him for some dim primordial plenitude, which he attempts with all sincerity to bring into his own monstrous reality.  It's like his Road to Damascus, except that he's not Paul, but rather some guy who heard a noise, turned to look from afar, and then saw a light that disappeared before he could get to it.  No Acts 8: 25-34 for him.  How could he ever get it right?  How could you ever blame him.

Jack's attempt fails for two reasons: he doesn't have the tools or experience to pull it off, and even his own inadequate perceptions are completely plowed under by the distorted picture he has to give to the hallowe'en folk in order to sell them on the idea.  A well-meaning but short-falling politician, in other words, forced to further compromise by the restiveness, the wanton distractability and ignorance of his constituents.  

("Nightmare..." is amazingly executed, but not so unprecedented, neither in technique nor sensibility.  Starevich [find the second part yourself]: . Trnka: watch)

Furthermore, the seemingly inappropriate, nearly sacreligious violence that is visited upon the kidnapped Santa might actually be neither sacreligious nor, if our intent has any bearing, even inappropriate.  It's merely the logically absurd embodiment of what happens when the monstrous tries to co-opt the sacred.  They knew where to turn, but not how.  Don't get mad, but be grateful.!  Or, don those missionary duds.  Maybe this film, this world isn't a red door painted black after all.  Maybe it is a field that is all white and ready to harvest.  


Directed by Jon Favreau

US, 2003

That long ago?  This is almost annoyingly popular and favoured.  It's not like it's perfect.  James Caan as the candidate for redemption is like Gene Lockhart playing an angel in Carousel.  With Ed Asner this time, we're still being coy and cowardly with this Santa Claus/Jesus thing.

Surprise link

Still, isn't it good?  Among other things it features an extremely long belch, and that stunt man leaping up onto that Christmas tree.

Tokyo Godfathers

Satoshi Kon

Japan, 2003

With this one the late, lamented Satoshi Kon brought Ford's 3 Bad Men and 3 Godfathers (q.v.) together, in a contemporary Japanese setting, ramping up the naturalism and all that usually goes along with it. The surprising result is a spectacular grown-up version ofThe Best Christmas Pageant Ever.  Think of it.  Really badly behaved people behave really badly, and do so next to a sacred season and situation that the well-behaved take too often for granted.  The result of the collision is that the circumspect see how self-satisfied and judgmental they have been, while the previously unacceptable, the previously irredeemable are cleansed in the blood of the lamb.  

Sound schematic, or over-insistent?  Thing is, there's enough back and forth here, enough incident, enough provocation, comedy, soap opera, violence and virtuosic set pieces to make the moral medicine go down pretty easily.  And without being diluted at all!  Impossible?  Another precedent, or parallel.  Naturalism, + opera, + a pointed moral at the end?  Raging Bull!  

This film really is so good for you.  Note how you are feeling when the straights on the train react to these homeless people in their midst.  We're appalled.  We've been manipulated into identifying with difference, with deviance even.  This has caused difference and deviance to fall away from our eyes, leaving only the brotherhood of man, not to mention the salvation that babies bring.  It's all beautifully crafted, extremely bold and funny and troubling.  Have the kids watch it.  You'll all have to do some explaining to one another.  Could actually make you a better person.  


Directed by Charles Sturridge

UK, 2005

Eric Knight's original novel is dear and nice and nearly a classic.  Liz Taylor appears in the original film version.  There are a number of well-meaning sequels. None of any of these come close to this whopping thing.  The synopsis suggests simple, sentimental kids' story, which is true.  But this is the simplicity of saga, this is sentiment, not sentimentality, this is kids are of the kingdom of heaven.  True, Gregor Fisher's turn doesn't quite measure up to the Glaswegian glories of Rab C. Nesbit.  There—the only flaw I can think of.  

The humans, in town, take us through the assumptions behind the class system, as well as the way it functions.  Rotten privilege, resilient worker, some melodrama reinforcing the message, but also room made for some nice, necessary cross-class detente.  Dramatically affecting, and educational too.  As for Lassie, she shows us the Mythical Journey, the Elements, the perfidy of man and the Kindness of Strangers.  Could you see this ending coming a mile away?  Well, same with your assurances about an impending, millennial day.  It's not obvious, it's inevitable. Lassie is beautifully writ and designed and shot and especially acted.  Particularly by the dog.  (And Peter Dinklage.)  Overall, altogether, boom!!  Don't see it, or dismiss it, and you don't get to complain about no appropriate movies for families ever again.  

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 

Directed by Michael Apted

US/UK 2010

What have they done with that tender little book?  Where did the director of the sublime Amazing Grace go?  The reflective and theological bits are replaced by noise and tumult, especially as regarding Eustace/the dragon.  Aslan’s intervention was the whole point of that episode, and the high point of the whole book.  Where did it go?  Instead of private reproof and reclamation—he’s only a kid, after all—we get Eustace the dragon all the way to the end, defeating a fear-summoned sea monster.  What?!  It’s either commercial cowardice, tin ears, or the aesthetic obliviousness of the sponsoring Christians.

To give credit where it’s due, the kid who plays Eustace is quite tremendous.  He creates an obnoxious character who is also very funny—a tough order.  Also, whether by happy design or with stumbling dumb luck, the story does temptation and repentance very well.  It goes so far as to explore the types pertaining to Christ’s temptation.  There are the boys, drawn by appetite or pre-eminence, and there is the girl, doubting her worthiness.  While under the influence they are pretty well incapable of anything else.  Once delivered, what a phantom it all seems.  The wave effect at the end is cool.


It seems grumpy, it is grumpy to end on that last one.  It might seem disruptive or anti-seasonal to end on this next one.  Nothing symbolic intended.

Black Narcissus

Written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

UK, 1947

Superlatives are nearly or practically useless, but is this the most beautifully designed and photographed film ever?  A film, from a book, in which Western religious adherents, and maybe their Western religious tradition, are not up to the challenges, complexities and impenetrabilities of the mystical Orient.  This humility borders upon self-repudiation.  If it's not true here, is it true at all? Paradoxically, it also provides some of the most sweetly searing Christmas imagery in the history of the medium.  Deborah Kerr's Sister Clodagh remembers her native Ireland in a series of dazzling, green-grassed and red-haired flashbacks. The most exquisite of these occurs on a Christmas Eve spent with the man she'd loved, and subsequently lost.  Returning to the present, Clodagh finds herself back in the company of her sisters, all bravely singing these delicate carols in the midst of an obliterating Himalayan vastness.  Is this an exquisite sacrifice?  Or is it a great crime?  

Blaise Pascal has his answer, and so may the rest of us.  But in P&P's principled, charitable doubt we might also find what makes Christmas so important, so ultimately lovely.  A tiny babe, the weary world rejoicing, while all of its principalities rage just around the corner.  "Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief..."

Christmas Movies, pt. 1

This list is compiled by Dean Duncan, a BYU professor of film, and host of This'll Take a While on BYU Radio.

The Christmas Dream 

Directed by Georges Meliés

France, 1901

This is Andersen's Little Match Girl, but from the inside, or the perspective of the fortunate.  Great idea.  We get sweet masque like visions, processions and dances, angels and snowflakes.  Meliés' work is always stylized (mimed, dance-like), but he also contrives a few terrifically knowing, socially authentic things here.  For instance, the shot where the rich people all go in to be prosperous at the same time that an equal number of people, completely unremarked, hold lamps and lead horses and do all the work.  At the end the servants push the beggar out, but the gentleman invites him in.  Very pretty.  Now we just need to find a systemic alternative to glancing, unreliable individual largesse.  Not charity, but justice! 

(A famous example of American Journalism)

Santa’s Workshop 

Produced by Walt Disney

US, 1932

No conflict!  What a sweet and friendly thing.  Its geography is great, starting with an establishing shot of a luminous north pole, and then exploring the workshop in patient and charming detail.  Note that the interest is not narrative.  It’s better than that: atmosphere and procedure is the whole point, and occupies the whole film.  The proliferation of activity, and especially the elaboration of the manufacturing processes, is terrific.  Santa is wonderfully rendered, and he represents more than just commerce, or the usual Silly Symphony shorthand (shortchange) of well-known characters.  Watch him go: Billy’s list was too long, and the pinched elvin accountant adds that he hasn’t washed behind his ears for seven years.  Santa (cf. One Magic Christmas, and to a degree Elf; when is Santa not really Santa?) laughs, meets and trains Billy's excessive wishes by giving him a Noah’s Ark, and throws in a cake of soap for good measure.  In other words, didacticism and anarchy, in equal and harmonious measure.  "Mammy!"

Tolkien created something similarly charming for his weans (1920-1942).  See The Father Christmas Letters, pub. 1976, rev. 1999:

Lady for a Day

Directed by Frank Capra

US, 1933

A lot of these movies end on Christmas day, which isn't the same as being a Christmas movie. They affirm/exploit the fact that Christmas is an easy and obvious symbol of all sorts of other plenitudes.  We're invested, and then they proceed to have their way with us.  Filmmakers!  

Mind you, this one makes up for all of its manipulations.  The Christmas climax is stirring, and affecting, because the whole wise-cracking, Runyonesque setting is so well-established.  Director Capra has really hit his stride, as has writer Robert Riskin.  The Utopian conclusion to this whole concoction may be preposterous, but it's neither dumb nor naive.  Fairytale of New York: the Depression is the dark forest, and charitable, class-collapsing collectivism keeps the wolves at bay.  Call the House Un-American Activities Committee!

The Night Before Christmas

Produced by Walt Disney

US, 1933

The less melodramatic, cartoon-lengthening conflict, the better.  This has a very pretty establishing shot.  There’s a diaper hanging on the mantel along with all those stockings.  Some of the Silly Symphonies lecture and hector annoy all over the place.  This one isfor kids: note the great, gratuitous digression in which these terrifically imagined and executed toys (including a few craftily product-placed Mickey Mouses) play around much more than was necessary.  In late 1933, when most audiences are still depression-ravaged, this probably provides a welcome bit of cave-of-wonders wish fulfillment.  As such, Santa’s kindly generosity when confronted with the stocking with the hole at the bottom—see last Christmas's entry—is quite sweet.  (He inverts an umbrella, opens it, and starts pouring.)  It's still Arabian Nights, but now it’s not the morbid fantasy of the poor, but a warm hint of divine grace.  Also, as usual, a blackface joke.   

The Shanty Where Santy Clause Lives

Directed by Harmon & Ising

US, 1933

Nice one.  There’s some bite to the poverty at the opening, and there's real relief as it subsequently gives way to bounty.  It feels like the Depression is a presence, and not just a gimmick or placeholder.

Children From Overseas 

Produced by Stuart Legg

Canada, 1940

National Film Board propaganda about refugee English children, evacuated to Canada.  It effaces all sorts of trauma and sorrow, but as usual with Legg, the context of the situation is so well and clearly established that you can still easily read the emotion, the high stakes between the lines. Unusually for a Legg film—in these early days he and Tom Daly mostly compiled their work from archival material—they actually shot some footage for this production.  More importantly, they went out and recorded sound, too.  A similar innovation led to the much more celebrated Housing Problems (UK, 1935), but the effect here is just about as electrifying.  That earlier film brought us poignant trauma and urgent witness. Here, we simply hear the kids, calling the folks back home at Christmas.  In these blithe, fathomless exchanges we feel the hopeful optimism of the colonies, and the painful paradox of these kids' thriving being measured by the dimming of their home memories.  Great Britain saves the world, and then its Empire crumbles.  Of its time, and much more.  

Kitty Kornered 

Directed by Bob Clampett

US, 1946

Starts with a bang.  It’s 9 o’clock of a winter evening, and everyone is tossing their cats out of the door.  Porky expels three Sylvester-like felines, and then a fourth, tiny kitten throws him out.  This is a Bob Clampett film all over the place: really manic, really energetic, chock-full of jokes.  In this case—sometimes Clampett films are too much of a good thing—the jokes are pretty well all successful.  For instance the room that becomes a billiard table, or the part where they pull on that moose bust and the whole moose body pops out.  Tons of surrealism here, with happy impossibilities, and a lot of the gags that feature physics/plausibility-defying transformations and metamorphoses.  There’s a fun War of the Worlds (Welles) bit, and at one point the cats turn into four Teddy Roosevelts.  We don't know why.  Michael Barrier expresses great appreciation, over there on that second track commentary.  Imagine achieving a feeling of spontaneity in the midst of a process as belaboured as animation.

Putty Tat Trouble 

Directed by Friz Freleng

US, 1951

The setting/situation, with little Tweety like some avian pillar saint perched in the cold between those two very urban apartment buildings, is superb (Beckett-like, elemental, primordial).  How vulnerable are the little ones!  Except for this one, who actually isn’t vulnerable at all, diminutiveness notwithstanding.  Tweety is never scared!  His films reassure kids by telling them that the meek shall indeed inherit the earth, even if they’re not particularly meek.  

This picture is not very consistent with its setting, nor with the urban naturalism that tended to emerge from it.  Way too hopeful!  In this way, I guess, it’s like those little WB cartoon domestications of the horror films and of a kids’ fairy tale anxieties.  (Sesame Street will take this on later, and in a much more systematic manner.)  The sources are very serious, and substantial.  Their derivations are completely for fun, for laughs.  Don't be fooled, though.  There's a theme, tremendously substantial, tremendously successful.  Here are the realities, kids.  And you’ll be all right. 

Snow Business

Directed by Friz Freleng

US, 1953

Granny’s bird and Granny’s cat are snow bound in Granny's cabin. Sylvester kisses Tweety to reassure him.  This gives Sylvester an idea.  Zaniness follows.  These pictures are kind of like Call of the Wild and White Fang, put together.  (Domestication introduced and forced to adapt to wilderness, wildness, ditto, with the domestic.) Add the fact that the snowbound cabin is stocked only with bird seed and you get Jack London strained, again, through Samuel Beckett.  Freleng pretty well always uses that static frame and that tiptoe music.  It always works.  There's a very nice bit with that paper boat in the pot of boiling water.  Skating on vegetable oil is good, and the spatula that Sylvester sensibly uses to lift his burning paws/hands from the grill.  This is Canned Feud, plus Tweety.

This second cat provides possibiities.  In a strange way it takes Sylvester out of the antagonistic relationship with his prey, and turns turns the film toward a purer, more abstract violence.  Striving is all, and what you strive for doesn’t really matter.  Or, war impulses are raised to the point of absurdity by the miniscule objective over which they’re all battling.  (Cf. the Roadrunner cartoons).  Great stair shot!  The dippy bird sequence is accompanied by some superb music, which, again, is a particular hallmark of the Freleng films.  The sound effects are also terrific.  They import sounds that you wouldn’t quite expect, giving flesh in ways you would never have imagined.  This is one of the roots of comedy, or, if you concentrate a bit, wonder.  The final ice stuff is really great—another exemplary bit of gag construction.   

Santa’s Surprise 

US, 1947

No big studio, no big distributor.  Poverty Row, in fact.  Pretty good, too.  (Features Jack Mercer and Mae Questel!)  Think of all the obscure things we miss out on.  Here’s a combination love letter and dream come true for the Santa fans in the audience.  They join the main characters in a visit to Santa’s workshop.  The salutary variation is that this isn’t a sugar-plum vision.  They’re all there to help, and the film nicely splits the difference between visions of avarice and the fact that you have to earn your rewards.  More, that service should eventually become more pleasurable than being paid for it.  Ethnic stereotypes everywhere, and they're all good ones.  It’s not caricature that does the damage, it’s when caricature isn't balanced by reality and complexity.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Directed by Max Fleischer

US, 1948

Poverty row.  What’s with the sound?  Still, here’s a fresh take on this horrible franchise.  Rudolph lives out in the world, and Santa pulls away from all that cruel incomprehension because he needs help and sees the little guy’s potential.  Not quite Howard Hawks, but better than usual.

Going My Way

Directed by Leo McCarey

US, 1944

Bing Crosby is the greatest.  Leo McCarey is also the greatest, or was for quite a long time.  This movie, it seems to me, is not the greatest.  You may disagree. Does feature one of those Christmas climaxes, and Barry Fitzgerald's Oirish schtick (he is a native, mind you, and authentic when he's not out milking it), as well as his ancient doddering faux mother.

Miracle of Morgan's Creek

Written and directed by Preston Sturges

US, 1944

A stunning parable, as well as being a kind of purloined letter, hiding in plain sight of all of the censors and watchdogs who should have objected, and yet somehow missed it.  (Or could there have been reasonable functionaries in there, turning blind eyes when they could?)  The movie's central, alleged marriage is very funny, in all its particulars.  But in real life it never happened.  Something else did, though, and a lot, during this fearsome, frightening wartime period.  Young people came crashing together, with ardent irresponsibility, and irresponsible ardour. Shouldn't have.  Did.  Now what are we going to do about it? 

Interlude: sometimes fingers should be wagged, but they should still be wagged decently.  Do we really think—have we so forgotten?—that this kind of exchange is exclusively carnal?  Mr. Springsteen remembers, and aptly sets forth the secular trajectory.  Listen to the sequence of the lyrics on the bridge.  Isn't that right, and in two senses of the word?  That kiss will lead to a touch, like your folks warned you, and like probably they were warned.  But touching can also lead to the heart, and to strength and hope and faith.  The kiss and the touch brings us back to the face, which is not just the ever-present physical, but also body and spirit combined unto completeness: to love and the dream and the entire being, to his and her entire life. The soul. Cue ecstatic guitar...

(Big Star)

(This video doesn't seem to know how profound this song is.  The Beach Boys)

Obligatory Christmas climaxes can be nice, what with our sentiments, and our sentimentalities, and such.  Contrary to that run-of-the-mill, this film's climax is Christmas significant, and Christmas appropriate.  Doctrinal aptness, theological heft; forgiving and forgiven, for Christ's sake.  Then the sextuplets.

Miracle on 34th Street

US, 1947

Edmund Gwenn, with his charming turn as Kris Kringle, is the Trojan Horse.  Let him into your house and in no time the moneychangers will drop out and desecrate the place.  The spirit of giving and Christmas are here pressed into the service of Macey's, Christmas commerce, Mammon.  "They don't make 'em like they used to," they always say.  They is a knucklehead.  

3 Godfathers

Directed by John Ford

US, 1948

Ford's eccentric remake of his tremendous 1926 Western, Three Bad Men.  It's a Christmas parable, for some reason, and the previous version's plucky young heroine is now a stranded and endangered male infant.  The wise men are bandits. (Shepherds and kings combined, à la the myth of American democracy?)  I'll bet the Merian Cooper papers, housed in BYU's Arts and Communications archive, could explain it all for us.  (Ask 'em) Exalted reputation notwithstanding, Ford clunked on occasion.  Eccentricity notwithstanding, this isn't one of those occasions.  Don't you find that the same ol' Christmas texts start paling and palling after so many repetitions?  This'll get you there from a completely different angle.


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