Santa Claus Conquers the Movies

Story Analysts Unwrap Their Favorite Holiday Shows

compiled by Beige Luciano-Adams

The peculiar sway film and television hold over us––their power to date-stamp time, organize our lives and act as both mirror and engine to our cultural institutions––reaches a glittering climax during the holiday season. The classics are indispensable; their honeyed morality, sentimental charm and uplifting narratives provide an official invocation. But once we catch on to the inherent chaos and anxiety of the season, levity becomes as prized a narrative commodity as hope and redemption.

Thankfully, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid” and electrocuted house cats have taken their place alongside more sober- ing images of Alastair Sims’ Ebenezer Scrooge in the throes of self-realization. In the last several decades, filmmakers answered our cry for holiday catharsis with gimmick and slapstick. But bad can be good, too, especially for films that we only trot out once a year. And, as evidenced by It’s a Wonderful Life––which only coincidentally takes place around Christmas––our favorites can be cut from any fabric. Gremlins counts. So does Die Hard.

The holiday cult canon is robust, from Christmas-themed horror and Mystery Science Theatre 3000’s treatment of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, to “exotics” like the 1984 BBC production of The Box of Delights. Now, spoiled for choice, we can watch Miracle on 34th Street and chase it with its antichrist, Bad Santa. We can run through the animated standards to The Nightmare Before Christmas and then back to the unintentionally creepy 1960s stop-motion TV special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

This year, we asked our erudite story analysts to weigh in on their favorites–– the films that left their mark, or ones that are revisited each year to mark the holiday season. The response was aptly colorful. The classics are in there––with a twist––but so are a few oddballs, as well as some views from the outside.

White Christmas. White Christmas. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
White Christmas. White Christmas.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Although A Charlie Brown Christmas and A Christmas Story have enduring appeal for “best demented dance party ” and “prime leg o’ lamp prop,” respectively, the hands-down Yuletide favorite for me and my three sisters is White Christmas.

The Irving Berlin show case musical, with its boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-and-girl-save-holiday- inn-and-general’s-self-respect” story, has the perfect balance of heart and humor, sentiment and schmaltz, song and manipulative guilt. Danny Kaye’s Davis saves the life of Bing Crosby’s Wallace in WWII and uses a consequential, minor war wound to manipulate Crosby into every thing from a professional partnership to romance with Rosemary Clooney. Crosby, Clooney, and Kaye get kudos for prime crooning, of course, but the hands-down highlight for us Ohanneson girls is the Clooney/Vera-Ellen number “Sisters,” in which the female sibs of Freckle-faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy, audition for showbiz producers Crosby and Kaye in bluebird-hued gowns with matching, over-sized, ostrich feather fans.

“Sisters, sisters / There were never such devoted sisters,” lilt the ladies as they flutter their fans and flirt with the appreciative impresarios. When we were younger, my sisters and I would swathe ourselves in blue scarves and swan around in our grandmother’s high heels batting huge fireplace fans. As adults, we still sing along loudly to the lyrics, especially the final two verses. “Lord help the mister that comes between me and my sister / And Lord help the sister that comes between me and my man.” The latter, I should hasten to add, is not an issue––especially at Christmas.

The classics are indispensable; their honeyed morality, sentimental charm and uplifting narratives provide an official invocation.

Another movie with significant Christmas memories, although of a very different sort, is Klute. The first installment in Alan J. Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy” might not seem like traditional film fare for Christmas, and it might as well have been X-rated as far as my parents were concerned. A film about murder, prostitution and sexual obsession was not an appropriate rental for the holiday––at least, not in their house. We didn’t dis- agree, but that, of course, was kind of the point. We begrudgingly turned off the VCR that time. But Klute has become, if not a holiday staple, an intermittent anti- dote to saccharine seasonal excess.

We’re usually drinking single malt instead of cider, but in the scene when Jane Fonda is faking it with a client, we always shout along, “My angel, my angel,” and toast making it through another holiday.

Kim Ohanneson

I know how it begins. “Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville, did not.” I know this Scrooge-like, green fellow will try to stop Christmas from coming.

I know he’s going to show up on TV every year, and get his “wonderful, awful idea.” He’ll disguise his dog Max as a reindeer and suit up as “Santie Claus.” He’ll steal everything from all the Who houses, even the Who hash. I know every clever Seuss rhyme, every flawless inflection of Boris Karloff ’s narration, every simple yet perfectly story- boarded Chuck-Jones- directed frame of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Yet I watch it again.

The Bishop’s Wife. Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures Inc.
The Bishop’s Wife.
Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures Inc.

I grew up a cultural Jew on New York’s Upper West Side. I was taught by my parents to be mistrustful of organized religion––even our own––because religion can divide as much as it can unite. But I also went to a Quaker school where tolerance was taught. The holiday lights of Manhattan were hard to resist, whether on Hanukkah menorahs or the Rockefeller Center tree. As a child no bigger than Cindy Lou Who, I reveled in watching the Grinch take his triumphant ride down Mount Crumpet.

The story analyst in me gets why The Grinch is so damned effective (and far better than the movie-length, live-action version). There’s the brilliant use of language, whimsical humor, the Seuss- inspired animated world. But what makes it resonate is the Grinch’s character arc. What could be better than to see a character, whose heart is two sizes too small, believably grow that heart three sizes, and find the strength of ten Grinches, plus two?

Each time I watch––now with my own kids, Thing 1 and Thing 2––I am as a child, struck anew with hope. People can change. Even Grinches.
Holly Sklar

A claymation short from 1993, The Junky’s Christmas is written and narrated by a warm and caring holiday host, William Burroughs. This is marksman Burroughs at his sentimental best––and claymation at its finest––with the story of “Danny the Car Wiper,” a dope-sick thief who’s fresh from jail on Christmas Day.

Encouraged when he finds a suitcase, Danny discovers that it contains a woman’s legs. Disgusted, he discards the legs and sells the suitcase. Unfortunately, the drug dealers have taken a holiday to do their own dope, and speed freak Joey tells Danny that there isn’t a pusher to be found. Desperate, Danny turns to disreputable alcoholic physician Zunniga, who refuses to write a prescription but gives him a single pill to take the edge off.

Danny quickly steals a syringe, rents a $2 room and is searching for a vein when he hears moaning next door. A boy is in excruciating pain from kidney stones and can’t afford medical treatment. Danny feels the Christmas Spirit, giving the boy his dope so that he can sleep. Danny himself is withdrawing when a warm flood of drugs surges through his body. “For Christ’s sake, I must have scored the immaculate fix!”

Lyndon Lamphere 

The episode of Saturday Night Live that aired on December 17, 2005, was chock-full of musical treats, starting with host Jack Black’s hilarious theme song for the movie King Kong. Lonely Island debuted its legendary music video Lazy Sunday. And the musical guest was Neil Young!

But for this Jew, married into a Christmas-celebrating family, and having grown up on Phil Spector classics, the absolute highlight was Robert Smigel’s perfect animated short, Christmas Time for the Jews.

The song itself (by Smigel, Scott Jacobson, Eric Drysdale and Julie Klausner) is an affectionate send-up of Jewish stereotypes––that is, stereotypes that Jews assign themselves––and plays on the “otherness” that many Jews feel at Christmas time. The stop-motion animation re-creates the style of the Rankin/Bass Animagic holiday classics from the 1960s.

But the crowning touch is Spector-era chanteuse Darlene Love singing the lead vocal. She hasn’t lost an ounce of her legendary vocal power. And she doesn’t camp it up a bit. She gives it all the heart- felt sincerity she brought to “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on Spector’s legendary 1963 Christmas album. The music goes rubato for her closing verse: “Now it’s nearly 10:30/ Yes it’s time for bed/ Daily Show reruns dancin’ in their heads/ Maybe next year they’ll learn how to hold their booze/ It’s Christmas time for the Jews.”

For those who think SNL has lost its mojo, the Christmas ‘05 episode reminds us how awesome the show can still be.

Marty Axelrod

It’s December and TCM is showing The Bishop’s Wife (1947). I’ve seen it 30 times and have the dialogue memorized, but I’m tempted to turn it on. Why? Well, it stars Cary Grant––who, when it comes to acting, was an angel. Nobody could play exasperation better than David Niven. And I could stare at Loretta Young’s cheekbones all day long. Or is it the story that’s calling? A story that speaks of possibility and the potential for transformation, themes that must be revisited, so much so that, year after year, I have to sit down and watch.

A Christmas Carol (aka Scrooge). Courtesy of United Artists.
A Christmas Carol (aka Scrooge). Courtesy of United Artists.

When I was a child, decorating the Christmas tree always seemed to coincide with the broadcast of the 1951 film version of A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim––who remains my definitive Ebenezer Scrooge. I was too young to fully comprehend what the movie was about (it mostly scared the crap out of me), but even then I sensed its message of change and redemption, the image of a giddily exuberant Scrooge running through London streets on Christmas morning (after a night of visits from all those creepy ghosts) making, in my nine- year-old mind, the holiday synonymous with hope far more than any message from the pulpit ever could.

Hope, after all, is the common denominator of holiday films. Characters’ hopes reflect our own––that if you’ve gotten yourself on the wrong path (and are taking your beautiful wife for granted), someone will show up to put you on the right one; that if you think you’ve lived a wasted life, someone will make you realize it’s actually been a hugely productive one. But enough musing. Cary, David and Loretta (and Monty Woolley and Elsa Lanchester, of course) are waiting. “I don’t think you’re an angel, I think you’re a demon right out of …”

Chris Bomba

Although I love the holiday, most Christmas entertainment leaves me unmoved—with one extraordinary exception. On Christmas Eve, 1951, NBC broadcast (live!) an opera it had commissioned, the first opera specifically composed for TV in America: Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act period drama Amahl and the Night Visitors. NBC commissioning an opera? For television? Yes, and after Amahl’s first rehearsals, Arturo Toscanini told Menotti, “This is the best you have ever done.” To everyone’s surprise, Amahl’s powerful music and story made it a classic, repeated by NBC in Christmas broadcasts over many years, all through my childhood, and I watched it every year with wonder and awe.

Ahmal and the Night Visitors. Courtesy of NBC
Ahmal and the Night Visitors.
Courtesy of NBC

The story is simple and powerful. Shepherd boy Amahl walks with a crutch, but he’s a dreamer, with a reputation for tall tales. Seeing a huge star, he tries to tell his mother but only succeeds in annoying her as she worries that their poverty will soon make them beggars. That night, they are visited by the Three Kings––Melchior, Balthazar and deaf Kasper––laden with rich gifts, following the star and searching for the child who will bring a kingdom of peace. Amahl questions them amusingly, but when all are asleep, the mother, feeling Amahl should be the child they speak of, tries to steal their gold, creating a huge uproar. When she apologizes, offering her own poor gifts, Amahl offers his crutch––and at that moment, magically, he can walk. The Kings are astonished, feeling Amahl has been touched by the hand of God, and they invite him to travel with them as they continue their journey. Amahl’s shepherd music (two oboes) plays as they disappear into the distance.

As a child, I could sing every note of Amahl’s music and all the rest, and even now, Amahl never fails to move me. With its spirit of generosity, hope and a touch of miracle, it seems a profound intuition of the holiday’s meaning.

An old kinescope of Amahl is available on DVD, as is a filmed version with mega-soprano Teresa Stratas as the mother–– both are musically excellent and highly recommended.