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Ho Ho Holiday movies: From classics to horror

October 27, 2009
By Tony Rutherford
Along with turkey, Santa, and snow, the Thanksgiving through Christmas holiday period represents the second best time of year for moviegoing, except for the summer. Hollywood has a split personality during November/December, though, as they put out films for the family, films mainly for adults, and specialty films geared for award consideration (Globes, Oscars, etc.).

The genre can be broken into more sub-topics than ice cycles, presents and lights on a tree, all of which relates to Hollywood’s love affair with surging attendance during the period.

Sometimes, the season is merely a backdrop for good karma or good deeds, such as “Sleepless in Seattle” (Meg Ryan’s character hears eight-year-old Jonah’s letter on Christmas Eve), “While You Were Sleeping” (1995, working on Christmas Day, Sandra Bullock’s character witnesses a mugging and pulls an unconscious man from an oncoming train), “Die Hard” (1988, Bruce Willis hidden inside a skyscraper attempts to rescue hostages on Christmas Eve), “Trading Places,” (1983, comedic retelling of Book of Job with snobby investor Dan Aykroyd switching places with street con, Eddie Murphy, but has the requisite Christmas party, tree,  “Jingle Bell Rock” in soundtrack),  and a dark themed action/comedy/horror flick where creatures called  “Gremlins,” (1984) become favorite pets and gifts. Steven Spielberg executive produced, his favorite writer Chris Columbus wrote the flick, and it marked the debut of Spielberg’s Amblim Entertainment.

To be specific, run a search on the Internet for “Christmas” related movies and television shows. One site has over 2,400 titles.

21st CENTURY CLASSICS TO BE

∫ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000): What a combination… Jim Carrey in the title role and wonder boy Ron Howard in the director’s chair of this live action telling of how the Grinch grew to hate Christmas, plots to ruin Christmas in a Santa masquerade, and eventually, turns into a Beauty Loves the Grinch After He Catches the Xmas Spirit type of production.

∫ Polar Express 3-D (2004): Hailed by some as an instant children’s classic, Richard (“Back to the Future”) Zemeckis started the cinematic digital revolution with this clever odyssey of a kid who finds adventures on a rollicking roller coaster railroad to the North Pole with Tom Hanks providing the conductors voice.  Aside from the visual effects, the theme re-packages a favorite for the season… just believe.

∫ Santa Clause (1994): Tim Allen stars in this spin on the Kris Kringle “Miracle on 34th Street” icon, as he puts on a suit and magically sets off delivering toys. When the reindeer return to the North Pole, the head elf proclaims he’s destined to continue the Christmas tradition. In the first sequel, he has to find a Mrs. Clause while in No. 3 he takes on Jack Frost (Martin Short).

MODERN CLASSICS

∫ Home Alone (1990): In his family’s rush to make the plane, eight-year-old Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) is left behind. He soon finds himself defending the homestead from a pair of idiotic, bungling burglars. Written by John Hughes. Inspired two sequels. Ironic trivia: He became the highest paid child actor ($8 million) playing wealthy comic book character “Richie Rich.” After he grew up, he made a bunch of flops.

∫ Christmas Story (1983): You can see this on a TNT cable marathon where it’s shown over and over back to back. An innocent ‘40s Heartland fable about Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), who dreams of a Red Ryder carbine action 200 shot B.B. gun. Narrative style imitated by TV’s “The Wonder Years.” Would you believe that the unpublished short story was originally titled “Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid?” Movie shot, in part, in Cleveland at the city’s legendary Higbee’s Department Store at the Terminal Tower and Public Square. The massive department store had two sets of art deco elevators closed in 2002. However, the city has a Second Broadway rep after saving four movie palaces (Allen, State, Ohio, and Palace) in an area now known as Playhouse Square. The movie inspired a Broadway spin off. Listen for: “…fudge” and a classical music score.

∫ Homecoming: A Christmas Story (TV, 1971): Pilot for the heartwarming Depression era family friendly series, “The Waltons, “ which itself is based on Earl Hammer Jr.’s “Spencer’s Mountain,” which starred Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara. Set in Virginia on the fictitious Walton’s Mountain, the series featured Ralph Waite, Michael Learned, Will Geer and Richard Thomas. Series is famous for its “good night” last words. Trivia: “Spencer’s Mountain” had an almost never ending hold over run at Huntington’s Keith Albee Theatre; “Walking Tall” (Joe Don Baker) eclipsed the number of weeks held over when it played at the Camelot Theatre.  One other long, long hold over record setter … come on, guess, think a long time ago in a galaxy…

HOLIDAY RELATIONSHIPS

∫ National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989): Chevy Chase, who worked the first season of “Saturday Night Live,” continues his role as the patriarch of the dysfunctional Griswold family. Here he’s obsessed with keeping 25,000 Christmas lights burning.  Look out for: The squirrel.

∫ Four Christmases (2008): Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon take on a 21st Century holiday phenomenon — visiting sets of divorced parents over the holidays. Having avoided the dreaded visitations by going on trips, the couple gets caught on the news grounded in the states. Will they still be a couple after enduring all those meddlesome single parents?

ROMANCE

∫ Shop Around the Corner (1940): Jimmy Stewart works as an assistant manager of a little shop in Budapest  where he squabbles with an unhappy clerk (Margaret Sullivan). However, this predecessor for Internet dating has the two writing each other as pen pals, who eventually decide to meet each other. “You’ve Got Mail” (1998,Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan) put the story in the computer age; Judy (“Wizard of Oz”) Garland starred with Van Johnson in a musical version, “In the Good Old Summertime” (1949) and on Broadway and London’s West End as “She Loves Me!” All based on meeting the soul mate, dream guy or gal, and significant others through what were originally called lonely-hearts classified ads. Based on a Hungarian play, “Parfumerie.”

ENDLESS REMAKES

∫ Christmas Carol: How many times will they do it again? Charles Dickens introduced us to Tiny Tim and Scrooge back in the 1800s. Actually, there’s a Disney 3D version with Jim Carrey starring as the voice of Ebenezer Scrooge. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (see “Polar Express”), we’ll soon see whether the pioneer of CGI can blow us away with his ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. The first adaptations to film of the story came in the form of shorts (1901) and the first feature length version rolled in 1916. Alternates between Scrooge, Scrooged (Bill Murray) or someone’s (i.e. The Muppets) Christmas Carol.

PARODY

∫ Nightmare Before Christmas (1993): Tim Burton spins a dude named Jack Skellington, the Halloween King, as a Grinch-esque character, who has grown bored with the Pumpkins and wants to take over Santa’s job … and re-do the whole concept of Christmas. Santa’s soon kidnapped, and kids get alternative gifts. This is a creative wonder that has its base in traditional, not digital (CGI) animation. It’s now adapted to 3D.

MUSICALS

∫ Holiday Inn (1942): An Irving Berlin traditional musical with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. It’s noted for the first release of the song, “White Christmas.”

∫ White Christmas (1954): An Irving Berlin musical featuring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney (who’s from a little town on the Ohio River in Kentucky and has an off spring named George). Believe it or not, Astaire declined to be a part of the pic.

∫ Meet Me in St. Louis (1944): Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien starred in this turn of the century musical set during the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. Legendary Vincente Minnelli directs. Film features “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

ANGELS/FANTASIES

∫ It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): When originally released, the Jimmy Stewart film played to modest attendance despite Frank Capra as its director. The movie became a Yule staple and beloved favorite only after repeated showings on television during the ‘70s and ‘80s; it did not reach break even in theatrical release ($6.3 million with a production cost of approximately $3.15 million), resulting in lackluster reviews and a belief that humanist and sentimental Capra had lost his touch. Lost Best Picture of the Year to “Best Years of Our Lives.”  

∫ Miracle on 34th Street (1947): The picture made Macy’s (New York) Thanksgiving Parade a household word as well as the derivation of Santa Claus as Kris Kringle. Lightly mocks the retail materialization of Christmas embodied in the competition between Gimbel’s and Macy’s. Edmund Gwenn and Maureen O’Hara star. Kringle’s sanity is questioned when he claims to be Santa; the post office makes it a feel good happily ever after. Shot in black and white, colorized, then remade four times. Trivia: Legally a full trial over Kringle’s danger to self or others claiming to be Santa was unnecessary (except in the 1994 version). Why?

∫ The Bishop’s Wife (1947): Cary Grant (as angel Dudley) comes to visit the parsonage of David Niven and Loretta Young, where the minister has been struggling with pressing financial problems of faith. Grant’s cool with the wisecracks (“I’ll pass along” the God bless you or “sometimes angels rush in where fools fear to tread”) and a mean harp. Re-made as “Preacher’s Wife” in 1996 with Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston, and Courtney Vance.

INSPIRATIONAL

∫ Miracle of the Belles (1948): Fred MacMurray accompanies the body of a budding actress back to her hometown in Pennsylvania. Olga won the title role in Joan of Arc, but died shortly thereafter. The producer doesn’t want to risk releasing the pic but publicist (then a press agent) MacMurray has a feeling. When buried, statutes and foundations shift at the church where Frank Sinatra is the priest. Miracle or stunt? Is it hokey and sentimental? Yes. But, I want to believe in miracles.  

∫ Going My Way (1944)/Belles of St. Mary’s (1945): Young, hip priest Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) quickly imposes open-minded thinking at St. Dominic’s headed by an older priest (Barry Fitzgerald). Set in an inner city, poverty-stricken neighborhood where he motivates the troubled youth, Crosby sings “Swinging on a Star.” In the “St. Mary’s” sequel, O’Malley spars with Mother Superior (Ingrid Bergman) at a run-down Catholic school. Shown on the tube during the Christmas season, it only has a Christmas pageant scene but the theme is one of curing heart problems through generosity. “Aren’t You Glad You Are You” has become a well known song.

∫ O. Henry’s Full House (Gift of Magi, 1952): Although the movie adapts five of Steinbeck’s classic short stories, it’s specifically remembered for the devoted, impoverished couple struggling to pay for Christmas with just love, not money.

∫ A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945): You might not recall this as a Christmas film, but this star studded, Irish American family weeper set in 1900 New York has a famous scene in which the money challenged kids obtain a Christmas tree from a vendor on Christmas Eve. Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, Peggy Ann Garner, Kathleen Nolan, Joan Blondell, Lloyd Nolan, and B.S. Pully as the Christmas tree vendor. If I recall correctly, this was a Christmas viewing favorite for a Huntington television station. It’s also our “Mayor’s Award” (recommended by Kim Wolfe).

HORROR

∫ Silent Night Deadly Night (1984): Most people remember that Santa brings gifts for good little boys and girls. Here, little Billy is warned that Santa punishes naughty kids. A bandit in a Santa suit robs a convenience store and kills the employee; Billy’s family drives by and falls victim to a Santa slaughter. That’s not all: Billy and his brother survive and end up in an old fashioned, highly disciplined Catholic orphanage. Listen for: Punishment is necessary, Punishment is good. Arts/crafts: If a little boy does not want to draw a pic of Santa, RUN. Many sequels. PTA protested axe swinging Santa, protesters stormed theatres, and film pulled by Tri-Star (absorbed by Columbia/Sony) only to turn up in the spring of 1986. Critics Siskel, Ebert, and historian Leonard Maltin all condemned the production.

∫ Black Christmas (1974): Not to be mistaken for the 2006 version (Katie Cassidy) which essentially does a gratuitous blood/gore/torture squirt job on the Canadian made original which has a ‘cult’ presence. The original has Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea and Margot Kidder as sorority girls at a Christmas party. However, a prowler climbs in the attic and begins making moaning phone calls to the sisters who start falling one by one. (A Blu-ray DVD released last November.)  Screenplay titled “Stop Me;” Warner Bros. released it as “Silent Night, Evil Night,” then, titled “Stranger in the House” for prime time TV, but pulled as too scary. Listen for: Music score. How’d they do it? Tying forks, combs, knives to piano strings. Irony: Right wing religious groups tried the no horror on Christmas screens protest for the re-make, but the distributor stuck to the schedule. Didn’t matter; flick flopped badly.

TRAVEL

∫ Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987): Rare Thanksgiving based premise with Steve Martin and John Candy stuck together in Wichita, after their plane is snowed bound. Both bound for Chicago, they make many unplanned detours. John (“Pretty in Pink,” “Breakfast Club”) Hughes directed and packed the film with hilarious one-liners. Post-9/11 note: The behavior of John Candy’s character on a plane now (pulling off his shoes and socks uttering, “Boy these dogs are barking today” likely would have him locked up by Homeland Security.

∫ Unaccompanied Minors (2006): Shifts the stranded period to Christmas and pits four teens against a Scrooge-like airport manager who places all disruptive kids in a bare concrete room with other stranded crazy kids. Warner Bros. has a full plate of releases, so this one kinda got lost in the shuffle. Released around Thanksgiving, many theatres replaced it a week before Christmas with “We Are Marshall.”

Yell it. Say it. Mutter it. Fudge! He left out my favorite, which is (fill in the blank). Actually, I left out many of MY favorites too. The list could go forever so let’s find a little mistletoe, deck the halls, and pass some punch. And, Justin, what are you getting me for Christmas? I’m a gentleman, I prefer blondes.
 
 

 

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