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Christmas Movies

The Spirit of Christmas Past

Ever-popular holiday movies and specials are back on the box this year.


Holiday spirit or holiday humbug? Charles Dickens enjoyed writing Christmas stories that fairly vibrate with good cheer, sentiment, and warmth. His contemporary, Anthony Trollope, thought such tales were a cynical exploitation of the season. No matter who was right, the equivalent of the Victorian Christmas story is still intact and is on the air today. Christmas-oriented movies and specials and holiday episodes of regular series appear throughout December-many rerun from past years and all emphasizing love, harmony, and the importance of relating to others.

If past practices are followed, the movies and TV programs that will be shown this season should include most of the ones in the following list. Although there will be some new programming, stations prefer the traditional 'because, says one observer, "people like to anticipate these specials. There are so few things they are sure of these days."


A Christmas Carol. Perhaps Charles Dickens' most popular story, his 1843 A Christmas Carol has been the basis of countless movie and television? adaptations, most of which invariably tum up on the tube during Christmas week., Among theatrical films, there is a 1935 British version called Scrooge, a 1938 MGM film starring Reginald Owen, a 1951 adaptation with Alistair Sim (generally considered the best), and a 1970 musicaJ (also titled Scrooge) with Albert Finney singing Leslie Bricusesongs. A 1979 made-for- TV movie called An American Christmas Carol updates the story to 1933, casting Henry[[wysiwyg_imageupload:452:]] "The Fonz" Winkler as a New England version of  Scrooge. Jim Backus's Mr. Magoo and the voice of Walter Matthau are featured in two cartoons, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol and The Stingiest Man in Town. (Matthau is Scrooge, and a non-Dickensian figure, B.A.H. Humbug, narrates.) A puppet version, also called A Christmas Carol, is frequently shown on the networks or public television. And finally, such comedy series as The Odd Couple, Bewitched, The Honeymooners, and WKRP in Cincin nati have produced Christmas Carol stories in which the program principals take on the roles of Scrooge, the ghosts, and Bob Cratc·hit.


Miracle on 34th Street. The best of the Christmas goodwill movies, Miracle on 34th Street (1947), is show'n every year'on local stations during the' holidays. This amusing story about a Macy's Santa Claus who must' prove in court that he is the real Kris Kringle won Academy and Golden Globe awards for writer-director -George Seaton and for Edmund Gwenn, who plays Santa with just the right amount of naivete, charm, and worldly wisdom. Co-starring Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, and a young Natalie Wood (as the girl who doesn't believe in Santa Claus until the end), the film delivers a message that never gets sentimental-to trust and believe in people. Although it ~as remade in 1973 with Jane Alexander, David Hartman (now host' of Good Morning America), and Sebastian Cabot, the 1947 version still remains the favorite.- (A 1977 TV Guide poll ranked it number 9 in a list of the 13 most popular movies on TV; Casablanca and King Kong headed the list.)


March of the Wooden Soldiers.  Originally titled Babes in Toyland (but renamed to avoid confusion with the 1961 Walt Disney movie), this 1934 film was among Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy's most financially successful efforts and the most ambitious project undertaken by their producer, Hal Roach. Casting Laurel as Stanley Dum and Hardy as Oliver Dee (characters who incorporated attributes of Mother Goose's Simple Simon and the Pieman), two employees of a cantankerous Santa Claus in a Toyland populated by human-size mice, pigs, and rabbits, Roach and his collaborators completely discarded most of the Victor Herbert operetta on which Babes was ostensibly based, keeping only some of the score. As one critic pointed out, Roach combined "elements of Mother Goose with the hoariest of screen villains, the heartless landlord, and bogeymen straight from the Brothers Grimm." The movie was a critical success as well, with critic Andre Sennwald, in the December 13, 1934, issue [[wysiwyg_imageupload:453:]]of The New York Times, calling it "authentic children's entertainment and quite the merriest of its kind." In 1954 NBC produced its own version with Wally Cox and Today show host Dave Garroway. Disney's version featured Ray Bolger and two Laurel and Hardy imitators.


Great Expectations. Although Dickens' great book has almost nothing to do with Christmas, apparently TV programmers find its Victorian flavor especially appropriate, because various film adaptations appear regularly this time of year. Although adaptations of the novel were made in 1934 and 1974, most stations prefer to broadcast the superlative 1946 David Lean version. Dickens' story of a young boy, Pip, brought up with "great expectations" of love and money, is a romantic tale of disillusionment and mystery. Noted Gerald Pratley in The Cinema of David Lean: "What Olivier has done for Shakespeare on the screen, Lean has done for Dickens." Great Expectations is perhaps the most effective translation of novel into movie ever made, the first adaptation of a Dickens story to masterfully capture the flavor of a novelist many claim to be well suited for the screen. Although Lean and his cowriters pared and edited the mammoth 1861 novel, they retained the right scenes and characters to capture the spirit of the story. Here is the convict Magwitch (Finlay Currie) confronting the young Pip (Anthony Wager) on the desolate moors. Here is Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) in her decaying mansion, Satis House, plotting revenge on the world. Here is Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan, repeating his role from the 1934 version), the imperious lawyer only interested in "facts, facts, facts." And here are Alec Guiness (in his first film role), John Mills, Valerie Hobson, and Jean Simmons brilliantly bringing life to Dickens' gallery of unforgettable characters. Great Expectations earned a place on The New York Times' list of "10 Best Films" of 1947, Academy Award nominations for best picture and director, and awards for cinematography, art direction, and set decoration.


A Crosby Christmas. Almost as much as Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Bing Crosby came to epitomize the Christmas spirit, through songs such as "White Christmas" and his holiday TV specials. He also appeared in four very popular Christmas movies. Holiday Inn (1942), [[wysiwyg_imageupload:454:]]co-starring Fred Astaire, was the comedy in which he first sang "White Christmas," later reprising it in the 1954 movie named after the song. "It's a great song with a simple melody," he said in his autobiography, "and nowadays anywhere I go I have to sing it. It's as much a part of me as 'When the Blue of the Night' or my floppy ears." Despite the song's popularity, Going My Way (1944) is generally considered his best film. As Father Chuck O'Malley, a boyish priest who teaches the crusty Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) how to cope with life, Crosby earned an Academy Award (he repeated the role in The Bells of St. Mary's, another Yuletide favorite, opposite Ingrid' Bergman). The movie also won Academy Awards for Fitzgerald and writer-director Leo McCarey, and a Golden Globe as best picture. It also inspired a short-lived 1963 TV series starring Gene Kelly and Leo G. Carroll.


It's a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra's movies, although "Capra corn" to some, epitomize the Christmas spirit. In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941), Capra trumpeted human virtues in sentimental stories of Americana. It's a Wonderful Life, made in 1946, was his most whimsical, a "Christmas Carol" tale reaffirming the common man's essential goodness. The movie, Capra's first postwar effort for his own company, Liberty Films, was based on "The Greatest Gift," by Philip Van Doren Stern, a short story written for a Christmas card. Dalton Trumbo and Clifford Odets had worked on the screenplay for another producer, but when Capra bought the property (for $50,000), he used other writers and concocted scenes of his own. The movie tells the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), a would-be suicide who believes his life is a failure until his guardian angel (Henry Travers) shows him what life would have been for his family and friends if he hadn't existed. In the end, the townspeople gather to support George in his greatest financial struggle, proving that no man faces the world alone as long as he has friends and love. It's a Wonderful Life, which received five Academy Award nominations (but no awards - The Best Years of Our Lives took them all that year), is Capra's own personal favorite among all his films (he watches it each Christmas). It was remade for television in 1977 as It Happened One Christmas, with Marlo Thomas in the Stewart role.


The Homecoming-A Christmas Story. Before there was The Waltons, there was this 1971 forerunner, a TV movie featuring Patricia Neal, Edgar Bergen, and Richard Thomas in the kind of warm family tale that became a staple on the popular series. The story, based on Earl Himner Jr.'s recollections of his youth (previously the basis for the 1963 Henry Fonda movie Spencer's Mountain). won critical kudos, a Christopher Award, and three Emmy nominations. It also convinced CBS to try a, series, and although The Waltons was a slow starter in tho ratings, it became the most popular show in its tirneperiod for seven years. The Homecoming, rerun almost every year, appeared five times on Variety's "Toprated Movies on TV, 1961-1979" list, a record for a TV movie.


[[wysiwyg_imageupload:455:]]Made-for-TV Christmas Movies. The made-for- TV-movies most frequently shown on local and network television include a cross section of good, bad, and indifferent stories, all linked together by the goodwill, importance-of-human-relations theme. A Dreamfor Christmas (1977), written by Earl Hamner Jr., is the saga of a black congregation's struggle to survive in 1950s Los Angeles. A Christmas to Remember (1978) features Jason Robards as an old man, embittered by the death of his son, who learns how to love again by bringing up his grandson. The Gathering (1977), an Emmy winner that spawned a 1979 sequel, The Gathering, Part II, stars Ed Asner as a crusty businessman trying to work out his tangled family relations on the Christmas before he dies. Silent Night, Lonely Night (1969) brings Lloyd Bridges and Shirley Jones together as a lonely couple during a brief Christmas Eve encounter. The Man in the Santa Claus Suit (1978) features Fred Astaire playing seven different roles in a you-can-have-it-if-youwish-for-it collection of stories. Christmas Lilies of the Field, a whimsical 1979 sequel to the 1963 theatrical film, finds Billy Dee Williams helping a group of nuns, while Sunshine Christmas (1977) follows musician Cliff De Young home to his estranged family for the holidays. On the historical side, The Nativity (1978) recreates'the courtship of Mary and Joseph, and the first Christmas; and Christmas Miracle in Caufield, U.S.A. (1977) shows what happened on Christmas Eve 1951 when coal miners were trapped underground' by an explosion.


Amahl and the Night Visitors. On Christmas Eve 1951, NBC broke new ground with an opera, by Gian-Carlo Menotti, specifically written for television, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and the network rebroadcast the story every year until 1966. Well received by critics and viewers, the story concerns a crippled boy's encounter with the Three Wise Men on their way to the Christ child, and the Christmas lesson he learns about giving. In 1978 NBC staged a new version" filmed in London and Israel, which has been rebroadcast on public television every year sInce.


Children's Specials. The best children's specials are usually the older ones. A Charlie Brown Christmas, first broadcast in the 1960s, shows there is more to Christmas than commercialism. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), with Burl Ives singing the hit song, uses stop-motion (animation of three-dimensional figures) to tell how Rudolph saved Christmas. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) is a Dr. Seuss cartoon-poem narrated by the late Boris Karloff, while Frosty the Snowman (1970) depicts the life of a happy snowman. "When things are produced for little children," an ABC executive remarked in TV Guide, "they have a new audience every year. Peanuts specials will run till the sprocket holes wear out."


Christmas Videotapes. If you can't catch a special or TV episode when it is broadcast, you can always record it on videotape or, sometimes, rent or buy it. The above-mentioned movies available on tape include: Scrooge (1970), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Holiday Inn (1942), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), and Babes in Toyland (The March of the Wooden Soldiers, 1934). Also available are three special Christmas tapes: The Night Before Christmas and Silent Night, Holy Night, both holiday cartoons; and Merry Christmas to You, a compilation of cartoons and Christmas episodes of Lassie and The Lone Ranger from the 1950s. Prices begin at $64 in most stores. 


DIVERSION, December 1982