Truth about Christmas Movies:
100s of DVDs, but only 5 tales
By ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm
Love Christmas movies? My wife Amy and I are such fans that we have a lifelong mission to watch every Christmas movie. We’ve also vowed to watch made-for-TV Christmas movies and notable Christmas “specials.” True fans of Christmas video, for example, share our hope that someday George Lucas will unlock the vaults and rebroadcast the rarely seen Star Wars Holiday Special. Similarly, we’re hoping the Muppets will release the equally rare John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.
BUT, THIS YEAR, WE HAVE A CHRISTMAS MOVIE CHALLENGE FOR YOU: At our house, we started in the late 1970s watching home-movie versions of holiday films on VHS tapes. After 35 years of home viewing—now mostly on DVD and occasionally on Blu-ray—we have come to this conclusion:
There really are only 5 movie plots among the 100s of Christmas films.
The challenge to you? Let me explain this theory, then please email us at [email protected] (or leave a Comment below) and tell us what you think. Add to our listings, suggest a movie we may have overlooked—and feel free to disagree! (Psst! This also is a great discussion-starter for a holiday-season gathering of friends. I’ve tried this myself—and the discussion gets quite … Spirited!)
THE FIRST ‘MODERN’ CHRISTMAS TALE: CHRISTMAS CAROL
The very first Christmas story is found in the Gospels—as little Linus pointed out in the 1965 debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas on CBS (now on ABC). But the first modern Christmas tale that echoed through Hollywood is Charles Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol. Since the first documented silent-film version in 1901, more than 50 movies have retold Dickens’ tale. Think that’s a lot? The number of remakes doubles if we add all the slight adaptations, such as the new Hallmark version: It’s Christmas, Carol, co-starring Carrie Fisher as a Marley-like ghost with a few magical powers that even Dickens couldn’t imagine.
Then, the list of remakes expands even further if we add in all of the free adaptations of the Christmas Carol theme. Here’s what we mean …
THE BASIC TALE OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL: There is hope at Christmas even for at-risk adults whose anger or selfishness has isolated them from the wonderful, compassionate life surrounding them. In a Christmas Carol remake, this hope miraculously appears through ghosts or angels or other magical beings. (Author Benjamin Pratt has written a new take on Christmas Carol for the 2012 holidays.)
THE MOVIE FAMILY TREE: The biggest branch from the trunk of the Christmas Carol family tree came in 1946 with the release of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life. The movie was based on a short story by historian Philip Van Doren Stern, who was steeped in 19th-century literature and told friends that his idea for a new twist came to him in a dream. Simply connect the dots and you can see that Dickens’ ghosts eventually become a single angel helping Jimmy Stewart to glimpse his past, present and future. Just like Dickens’ version, Wonderful Life focuses on the plight of Bedford Falls’ poorest residents.
Another branch sprouted in The Bishop’s Wife in 1947—remade most recently with a black cast in the 1996 production, The Preacher’s Wife. In these versions of the tale, an angel plays an even bigger role in the drama with Cary Grant starring in 1947 and Denzel Washington appearing in 1996. Like the original, it’s a tale of a heavenly messenger at the holiday to remind an angry-selfish man of life’s larger possibilities. Once again, the story focuses on the plight of poor neighborhoods.
Where is the story branching now? Oddly enough, newer Christmas Carol remakes seem to be losing the Dickensian concern for the poor. The dramatic tension in the 2000 remake The Family Man, starring Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni (with Don Cheadle as the angel), is between a life of fabulous wealth (pre-angel) and living happily on a middle-class budget (post-angel). No one worries about the poor. The same is true in the more recent Hallmark remake. Carrie Fisher comes back as a ghost simply to make her former business thrive again and the up-scale employees even more successful. The poor? They’re nowhere to be seen.
OK, you get the idea. Here are the other 4 archtypical Christmas movies …
SECOND TALE: Santa Is Real
THE MOVIE FAMILY TREE: Santa movies date back more than 100 years, debuting in the silent era. But the nostalgic yearning to restore a lost faith in Santa dates to the post-World War II era and the unforgettable performance of Edmund Gwenn as Santa in the 1947 Miracle on 34th Street (not to mention the precocious acting of little Natalie Wood). The movie has been remade a number of times (and the 1994 Dylan McDermott version of 34th Street is pretty entertaining). The Scrooges among us may argue that there is more than nostalgia at work in “Santa is real” movies—considering that the love of Santa is closely entwined with the need for Christmas shopping. Tune in network TV this month and you’ll see a clip from the original 34th Street in a Hollywood-themed advertisement for Macy’s.
Where is the story branching now? Big revivals of the “Santa is real” theme include the runaway 1985 bestseller, The Polar Express, a gorgeous children’s book that became a 2004 movie. After all, this yearning for the jolly red gift bringer is a potent tale! Tim Allen turned out an instant Christmas classic in 1994 with The Santa Clause, followed by two sequels. For younger children, the “Santa is real” story now has morphed into a very popular branch of movies about dogs and the holidays. Not only is Santa real—but Christmas-loving dogs can talk and bring even more holiday gifts!
THIRD TALE: Home for Christmas
THE MOVIE FAMILY TREE: Dramatic stories of making it home for Christmas stretch all the way back to the American pioneer era. Laura Ingalls Wilder tells one such tale of a life-and-death sleigh ride that managed to get her home for the holidays as a young adult. But the boom in such movies came with the vast displacement of World War II—coupled with Hollywood’s full-tilt support of the war effort. Today, few of us can sit through the nearly three hours of the Oscar-nominated Since You Went Away from 1944, co-starring a teen-aged Shirley Temple. Today, it’s rarely seen—but, if you are steely enough for that mid-WWII melodrama, you’re in for the mother lode of “home for Christmas” movies!
The enduring milestone in “home for Christmas” movies came a decade after WWII in 1954’s White Christmas. irving Berlin batted out the title song at a sunny, southern California hotel in 1940, not expecting the tune to become a hit. Then, by 1942, with American service personnel scattered around the world, the song’s haunting plea swept around the planet. It was chosen to close out the black-and-white musical Holiday Inn. The scenes of European battlefields and WWII veterans didn’t arrive until the 1954 Tecnicolor extravaganza, named for the song.
Where is the story branching now? For a while, “home for Christmas” was one of the most popular Christmas stories in Hollywood. In 1963, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, was the pilot that kicked off The Waltons TV series. But, today? Although widely available on DVD, The Waltons series seems a bit too sweet. Director John Huges began playing with this tale, looking for a way to freshen it, switching the holiday to Thanksgiving in the 1987 Planes, Trains and Automobiles—still a favorite of Steve Martin and John Candy fans. Then, in 1990, Hughes finally struck gold by flipping the tale inside out in Home Alone. This time, it wasn’t one individual trying to reach home—the entire family would struggle to return home. Americans just can’t get enough of that version! Last month, ABC debuted: Home Alone 5.
FOURTH TALE: Misfits become a family.
THE MOVIE FAMILY TREE: This Christmas movie plot also sprouted from the huge global mix of cultures in World War II—and Montgomery Ward’s creation in 1939 of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Suddenly, Americans were thinking about how “misfits” could peacefully mingle—and even dare to become a loving family. The children’s book was a big hit for Montgomery Ward, but it didn’t fully connect with the culture until after WWII. Gene Autry took America by storm with his famous version of the Rudolph song in the final days of 1949. Rudolph became a made-for-TV classic thanks to Burl Ives, Rankin-Bass and General Electric in 1964. Sure, Rudolph is popular partly because of great music and animation. But—there is something far deeper in this story’s appeal.
Everywhere Americans turned there were misfits—even within their own families. Soon there were a host of “misfits become a family” Christmas remakes. At our house, we never tire of watching Bob Hope in the 1951 Lemon Drop Kid, based on a story by Damon Runyon and proving that even crooks can form a loveable clan at Christmas. Of course, Hope played that movie version for laughs. Decades later, Ed Asner and Maureen Stapleton ushered in a long list of Kleenex-required dramas about “misfits becoming a family” with their 1977 ABC debut of The Gathering. Asner still is well worth watching, although The Gathering is a bit dated with its heated argument over the Vietnam War. Among our favorite “misfits” remakes is the 1995 Home for the Holidays with Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Dylan McDermott and the twist of focusing the story on Thanksgiving.
The key distinction between “misfits become a family” movies and “home for Christmas”—in classical terms—is the difference between the Illiad and the Odyssey. The Illiad is the tale of the Trojan War and how conflicting friends and families battle through their differences. The Odyssey is about a hero’s journey to his beloved home. Odysseus does have to clean house before the saga ends—but there is no question of his longing for home. Unlike “misfits” movies, “home” movies are about that deep yearning and the heroic journey to reach the home fires once again.
Where is the story branching now? By 2012, “misfits” are freshly scrambled—and lovingly united—in new Hollywood releases for every holiday season. There are even “misfits” movies for New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day—with more holiday remakes in the pipeline. If you discuss this story with your small group, challenge them to think about movies that cross over between these categories. “Home for Christmas” is a well that seems to be running dry. So, cross-over movies try to blend that story with “misfits.” Ask your friends to talk about the 2004 Christmas with the Kranks, in which a sudden “home for Christmas” announcement prompts a whole neighborhood of “misfits” to form a loving family. Or, ask about 2008’s Four Christmases, in which Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon have to visit four homes—chock full of misfits. Ask your small group: Which is more important these days? Finding home. Or, uniting misfits.
FIFTH TALE: Christ Is Real
THE MOVIE FAMILY TREE: The first Christ-in-Christmas movies date back to the late 1800s, when short silent reels featured robed actors marching through Nativity scenes set against cheap theatrical backdrops. One early silent film even showed Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt past a painted wooden pyramid and sphinx that looked like they might fall over on the cast.
The “Christ is real” storyline was so common through most of the 20th century that it was unremarkable. NBC and Hallmark Cards simply assumed all TV viewers would accept the Gospel story when they commissioned Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1951 Amahl and the Night Visitors as the first Hallmark Hall of Fame production. Linus was free to proclaim the Gospel in A Charlie Brown Christmas a decade later. Johnny Cash welcomed Billy Graham onto his Christmas specials to tell the story of Jesus. Perry Como, a singer who was notable for his deep Christian faith, was winning praise for Christmas specials well into the 1980s.
Where is the story branching now? In recent decades, the “Christ is real” theme has faded at Hollywood studios. The biggest pointedly Christian production at Christmas came in 2006 with The Nativity Story, which Pope Benedict XVI agreed to personally promote via a world premiere at the Vatican. Unfortunately, the production all but tanked. It finally earned a profit, but drew lukewarm-to-thumbs-down reviews. Even though 9 out of 10 Americans tell Gallup that they plan to celebrate Christmas in 2012—and 6 in 10 say they plan to go to Christmas services—this final branch of the Christmas movie tree seems to be withering.
So, What Do You Think?
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By ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and …
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.