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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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