I’ve never really thought of Christmas movies as one of my favorite genres of film. I stopped to examine the films below to write this essay as a Christmas gift to my brother. When I did so, I realized that there are many Christmas movies that help to define the season and shape how we perceive the holiday. There is a reason that the recent movie about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is called The Man Who Invented Christmas. That powerful work of literature, many times adapted to stage and screen, shaped the way we celebrate the holiday and helped to give Christmas the importance it now holds.
Some of my favorite movies, though, don’t have such a strong message, but rather simply take place during the holiday and use the trappings of Christmas as props to further the story. Those are also helpful to get into the spirit of the season. I’ll start with the story that has had the most impact on the way Christmas is observed and the adaptation of that story that I most enjoy.
1. The Muppet Christmas Carol
It doesn’t seem like the Christmas season until the line, “Marley was dead, to begin with” is uttered or read. Although in The Muppet Christmas Carol, the line is in the plural, since the creators had to figure out how to make perennial hecklers Waldorf and Stadler both into the character of Marley. Instead of the one Jacob Marley, we have Jacob and Robert Marley, and the line spoken by Gonzo (as narrator Charles Dickens) is “the Marleys were dead, to begin with.” Charles Dickens as the narrator of The Muppet Christmas Carol has to be the most prestigious role of Gonzo’s long career. He turns in a great performance, this time as the straight man to Rizzo the rat’s comedic antics.
Of course, despite the lovable Muppets, Michael Caine’s Ebeneezer Scrooge is what really gives the movie heart. I have loved Caine in everything from one of my all-time favorite movies, The Man Who Would Be King to desert claustrophobia epic Zulu to the hilarious Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and even the wacky it could only exist in the 80’s comedy, Blame It On Rio. However, he is his most charming in his turn as the legendary Scrooge. His miserly ways are as cold in the beginning of the movie as his affections are warm after his transformation at the end of the movie. Caine is pitch-perfect throughout, and some of my favorite lines that he delivers are actually from the book itself. When confronted by the spirits from his past, Scrooge chalks the manifestations up to indigestion, and says one of the lines from the original story, “there’s more of gravy than of grave about you.”
Caine is well-supported by both the Muppets and the set design. The opening shot from the film is a kind of arial tour of the buildings and streets of London and the view really sets the scene well. There are of course, Muppets of all kinds teeming in the streets, and a fun thing about the movie is that you can almost always catch a new Easter egg that you hadn’t noticed before. The last time I watched, my son claimed he saw a blue frog filing into Bob Cratchet’s (Kermit) home in the final scene.
Kermit is always a standout and he helps with the musical element that is added to the story for the sake of making it a successful Muppets movie. There’s something about hearing Kermit sing a song that is so endearing. It may be that I’ve been primed by “The Rainbow Connection” to have a close emotional attachment to songs from a singing frog. Kermit’s nephew Robin is ideal as Tiny Tim and evokes the empathy that is necessary to make Scrooge’s transformation during the movie believable.
There are so many elements in A Muppet Christmas Carol that more than just a mere orthodox retelling of the familiar story. The performances by puppets and puppeteers, one of Michael Caine’s best roles, the evocative Christmas songs, the sets that seem perfect for both actual humans and Muppets all add up to make this particular version something worth more than the sum of its parts and more moving even than the original tale.
2. A Christmas Story
A Christmas Story, which used to sort of seem like a cult classic, has become every bit the all-American Christmas movie. I think the film finally achieved its vast mainstream success when TBS (“The Superstation”) started playing it for 24 hours straight on Christmas Eve. Sure, the ploy was gimmicky, but the amazing thing was that you could actually leave the movie on for that period of time and not get bored with it. We used to have it running for unreasonable amounts of time in my house.
The movie represented a change from sappy saccharine Christmas fare to something that threw the ghost of a nostalgic Christmas past at you with a sly wink. Assumed to be set in the early 1940’s, A Christmas Story brings you back to a time where BB guns were the coveted but controversial gift that boys craved and secret decoder rings were found in serial boxes to help promote breakfast drinks. There is a familiar comfort to the environment presented in the movie and that gives room for irony and tweaking the conventions of the Christmas movie genre. Before there was a Bad Santa, there was the red-nosed mall Santa of a Christmas story who not-so-secretly hated his job and just wanted to speed kids through sitting on his lap as quickly as possible. Before the what-could-go-wrong next National Lampoon’s Christmas, the Bumpus’ hounds ate the Christmas turkey, forcing Ralphie and his family to go to a Chinese restaurant for their holiday dinner.
Instead of a Christmas miracle at the end of the movie, you get a protagonist that gets the coveted BB gun he’s schemed for the whole movie, and then almost loses an eye just like all the adults in his life told him he would.
A Christmas Story is based on the novel In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd. The teacher of my creative writing class in high school, Mr. Vernor, was often told that his writing resembled Jean Shepherd’s. On one occasion, we were treated to a reading of his work, and sure enough, the same sort of wry nostalgia leaked off of the pages. I remember being really impressed with my teacher.
3. It’s A Wonderful Life
While A Christmas Story trades in mostly cynicism and irony, It’s A Wonderful Life is almost entirely earnest. After all, the measure of a life, with all its highs and lows, triumphs and losses, can be pretty serious business. Sure, there are moments of comedy, and for the bulk of the film, the protagonist, George Bailey, is a well-humored guy. The film centers on the life of Bailey, from highlights of his youth, to his first job, to his marriage, to his life as a husband, father and business leader.
For most of the film, Bailey’s nemesis is a man named Potter whose “it’s just business” attitude when explaining his hurtful decisions seems believable enough, especially in our current business and political climate. I can’t help but think of Dana Carvey on SNL, playing Stewart’s Bailey, beating up a dummy of Potter in a hilarious tweaking of one of the film’s original scenes. Potter comes across as a true-to-life villain, and one that is easy to root for good-guy George Bailey to end up winning out against.
Part of It’s A Wonderful Life’s appeal is its epic scope. Though, like a disappointed Bailey, who always dreamt of travel, it never leaves the small town of Bedford Falls, the span of time it crosses is huge. The movie leaves plenty of room for character arcs and does a more-than-fantastic job of showing how all kinds of events (good, bad and seemingly inconsequential) can work together as part of a providential plan. In this way, it resembles John Irving’s book A Prayer for Owen Meany, which was later turned into the film Simon Birch. Both works echo the words of the book of Romans 8:28:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
Unlike Irving’s work, It’s a Wonderful Life, though, actually has a supernatural component, in the form of the angel Clarence, who is tasked with making sure George’s life doesn’t end before its time. The angel shows George what it would be like if he had never been born to prove out the effect that one man’s life can have on a town and the lives of others. Bedford Falls without George Bailey is a pretty grim sight, as Potter’s commercialism has played to people’s worst instincts. In this part of the movie, you see a very close echo of the ghost tours of past, present and future in A Christmas Carol.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a sprawling work that uses its length and setting to show the redemptive arc of providence. The film shows us that goodness and virtue are never wasted even when, in the words of the title character in the book of Job, “the wicked live, grow old and even become strong” (Job 21:7).
4. Christmas In Connecticut
I still find myself quoting the ridiculous line from the opening part of this movie, “magoo got you in, magoo will get you out,” all year long. The premises of this movie are way out there. The initial protagonist, Jefferson Jones, is rescued after being stranded at sea and becomes a celebrated war hero. He’s fed a bland diet to get him back to his strength and tries to convince the nurse he wants to marry her to get to eat steak, which he can’t keep down once he’s actually eating it. So, the movie starts out with Three’s Company episode-level deceit. Then you find out that the leading female character is a materialistic New York urbanite (played by the delightful Barbara Stanwick) named Elizabeth Lane, who writes a popular folksy column for a magazine under a completely assumed identity.
In today’s parlance, Lane could be considered part of the “influencer economy,” trading tales about an aspirational lifestyle for product sponsorships. The character doesn’t know how to cook (in fact, she’s got a Hungarian cook named Felix who features prominently for comic relief) but she writes whole features around down-home recipes.
When the time comes to prove out her lifestyle to her very strong-willed publisher, Lane heads to spend Christmas at the rural Connecticut home of an admirer of hers, set to marry her admirer to complete the deception. The magazine editor sets up a feature for the columnist to meet with the war hero for Christmas and there’s an immediate attraction. This puts the initial marriage plans in jeopardy, which is problematic, because Lane and her architect admirer have gone all-in on making their relationship convincing. They’ve even agreed to babysit a baby and pretend like it’s theirs. Most problematically, the babysitting gig turns out to be a rotation and both girl and boy babies show up. Lane tries to cover for the discrepancy in the babies genders, which is hilarious, because she knows nothing about babies in the first place. Others have to constantly show her even the most basic aspects of parenting an infant. Amazingly, the ruse doesn’t really start to give way until Lane and Jones start noticeably falling for each other. With the quickie wedding constantly postponed for one reason or another, both Lane and her architect fiancé both threaten to blow the cover until they realize how much they have to lose.
Predictably, things eventually come completely apart at the seams and Lane is forced to give up her true identity. Her publisher is aghast and immediately fires her. Eventually, though, plied by Felix and an irresistible breakfast, he agrees to reconsider and is tricked into giving Lane a raise. Meanwhile, Jones is given an easy way out of marriage to his nurse when she comes and announces she’s met someone else. With all of the entanglements resolved, he’s free to pursue his true sweetie and he and Lane are together at last. The movie ends on a high note, with even Lane’s dictatorial publisher in good spirits.
Christmas in Connecticut has all the elements of a classic black and white Christmas movie, with lots of funny twists. Stanwick is totally believable as the fish-out-of-water Elizabeth Lane. Felix is always entertaining as her devoted cook and co-conspirator. The movie has no overt Christmas themes, but the holiday provides a good setting as the backdrop for the hijinks that take place in rural Connecticut.
5. Shop Around The Corner
At this point, Shop Around the Corner is probably most famous for being the inspiration for the AOL-themed romance You’ve Got Mail. In Shop Around the Corner, the head clerk (played by Jimmy Stewart) in a small department store in Budapest is at odds with one of his fellow employees, all the while unknowingly corresponding with her via mail (snail mail this time). Unlike the later film, there is no class warfare aspect to Shop Around The Corner. The characters are all employees of the same shop, and mostly on the same economic footing. This simplifies things for the relationships. Besides, if there were a You’ve Got Mail 2, Kathleen would have ended up with Jeff Bezos, as competition from Amazon forces Joe’s bookstore chain to close down and her indie bookstore thrives again.
Shop Around the Corner is not always a funny film, but there is a sort of humor in seeing all-American Jimmy Stewart play a Hungarian store clerk. Though all of the names are Hungarian, there are no affectations of accents here, which makes things a little odd. It’s like they took an American drama and decided at the last minute to have it set in Budapest and just changed the names to match the locale. Jimmy Stewart resembles the same characters he usually plays, but that’s not a bad thing. Stewart has a pretty good range here as Alfred Kralik and the supporting cast gives him exactly the characters he needs to play off. His sparring partner and love interest, Klara Novak (played by Margaret Sullivan), keeps up with him, for most of the movie, in a kind of resentful anger.
Kralik is the first to figure out that his pen pal is his real-life arch nemesis, and though his is able to quickly come to terms with it, he plays with the knowledge and teases Novak a bit. It’s obvious how seriously Novak takes the relationship she’s made through the correspondence, which helps to suspend disbelief that she and Kralik would ever reconcile, as they do near the end.
The drama in the movie is not all between Kralik and Novak, though. The owner of the department store, a man named Hugo Matuschek, fails a suicide attempt after finding out his wife is having an affair with one of his employees. He initially pins Kralik as the disloyal employee but eventually finds out Kralik is innocent and gives him the promotion that he deserves.
Shop Around the Corner, though sometimes difficult, is enjoyable for its performances (the entire cast is great) and for its ability to compartmentalize so much drama and back and forth. Most of the film takes place inside the small department store. Through their work life, and their after hours, the characters find a way through the negative dynamics of their situations. Despite the heaviness of the final act of the movie, like It’s a Wonderful Life, Shop Around the Corner succeeds in bringing everything to satisfying resolution and ends on a hopeful note.
Although the film doesn’t go to the same extent describing the birth of Christ as the novel, Ben-Hur, with Charlton Heston, is a classic. The novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, by civil war general Lew Wallace, has the best extra-biblical account of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth that I have ever read.