Miracle on 34th Street (1947) — It’s been a tradition in my family for maaaaany years to watch this one on Thanksgiving, because the movie starts on Thanksgiving and goes on to Christmas, making it a perfect way to usher in the Christmas season. And I’ve always been impressed at how thoroughly excellent it is.
First off, one thing I’ve noticed about many Christmas movies, even some I love to pieces, is that Christmas is largely unrelated to the plot; technically it could take place any time of year and the story would remain unchanged. Not every film is like that, and often the way they avoid it is by establishing a “spirit of Christmas” that needs to be (and is, during the course of the story) defended against various un-Christmas-like trends and sentiments. Sometimes this “spirit of Christmas” is something stupidly nebulous (especially when the writers are trying their damnedest to avoid even a hint of religiosity), rendering the movie’s central conflict largely undefined and unsatisfying even while they reach desperately for emotional engagement.
Miracle on 34th Street takes the “spirit of Christmas” route, but very concretely establishes that spirit as one of generosity and kindness (to children in specific), innocence, and faith (specifically the ability and the need to believe in the better aspects of the human spirit); contrasted against commercialism, unkindness, bitterness, and cynicism. In establishing that Kris represents the former and the events of the movie represent a victory against the latter, and that this is all intrinsically involved with Christmas, they managed to make this particular movie much more of a Christmas feature than many others.
And that spirit of kindness and generosity is touchingly pervasive throughout. Excepting Sawyer (the closest thing this story has to a villain) and neutrals such as Charlie the political advisor and, indeed, main character Doris, the movie is stuffed with characters that demonstrate an active good will toward others that’s really heartwarming to see. If Christmas does represent the better aspects of the human spirit to any given viewer, they will surely feel that reinforced by watching this film.
And despite the seeming softness of these ideas in the spotlight, this Santa Claus has a bite to him. These writers (and actor Edmund Gwenn) were not interested in a milksop Santa. The current perception of Santa Claus seems to be one of a very pliant, gentle old man that may sometimes be a little clueless… to the point where it’s obviously considered ~*edgy*~, in advertising and terrible attempts at comedy, to show him displaying any will power, human desires, or behaviors less than perfectly socially acceptable. Seeing this Santa Claus with so much personality and backbone is far more refreshing than the filmmakers could possibly have anticipated seventy years ago.
And all the acting is so good. At a time when screen acting had barely evolved from the overplayed vocal styles and gestures of the stage — and there certainly is a lot of that here — it consistently astonishes me how excellent the performances in this movie are. Natalie Wood stands out in particular with her hilarious and adorable little-kid skepticism, but I don’t think there’s a single character in the well written and coordinated cast that isn’t flawlessly acted.
One thing I hugely love here that I can’t fail to mention is the relationship between Doris and Mr. Shellhammer — it’s the kind of platonic male-female friendship with no hint of romantic interest/possibility that I adore, very cute and funny, and well established through many little moments (and good acting) throughout the story.
One of the only problems I can mention, and not particularly significant at that, is that there is some Misplaced Expositional Dialogue in places. In the end, I can’t praise this movie highly enough. There aren’t a lot of movies I can handle watching every single year without fail, but this one is never a problem. And a few others that fall into this category are also on this list, including…
White Christmas — In fact, as I have mentioned in the past (at the time of my homemade soundtrack), this is one of my favorite movies, period, Christmas or otherwise. I sometimes cheat and watch it outside the Christmas season, but it’s also usually the first movie my family watches on the day after Thanksgiving (which has always been our putting-up-the-Christmas-tree-whilst-eating-snacks-and-watching-movies day).
So this is one of those shows I mentioned above that doesn’t actually have much to do with Christmas. Of course if you already associate Christmas with selfless giving and a developing feeling of family, then this film is as Christmassy as any other with such a kind-hearted story… but, yeah, it could just as easily be set around Valentine’s Day or something. That doesn’t really bother me, just makes me chuckle a bit.
Of course all the song and dance numbers are excellent and peerlessly performed, even if a few of them feel a little shoehorned in… but this time around I was noticing with some admiration how Vera Ellen’s spectacular dancing in particular is an almost unbelievable demonstration of athleticism that showcases both her skill and her body without sexualizing any of it. Of course there’s nothing wrong with sexuality or sexy dancing, but these days it almost seems like women can’t perform skillful dances without being expected to emphasize their sexual desirability (and availability) in so doing, so Judy’s choreography and performance is both pleasant and impressive.
I love Danny Kaye in every role he ever played… OK, that’s not the right way to put it, since he only ever played one role. But I love Danny Kaye in every movie he ever played that one role in. Of course I adore every single person in White Christmas, but to me Danny Kaye stands out as the cutest and funniest. He was always an excellent dancer and a good singer, but it was his charming goofy personality you could never help loving whenever he appeared. And I always reflect on the original intended nature of Phil’s character that was so drastically altered by Danny Kaye (rather than the guy they’d originally wanted) taking the part. How inferior the movie would have been then to the masterpiece we eventually got!
I thought I would have a lot more to say about this one, considering how I feel about it, but it turns out this is the end of it for today. I think it’s because I have watched this film so many times with my family over the years that we’ve hashed out all our thoughts about it at great length. So. I love every moment of White Christmas every time I watch it, and that’s all there is to it (for now).
The Muppet Christmas Carol — Aight, more context. This is usually the second day-after-Thanksgiving movie. And Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is particularly meaningful to me and my family because it’s always been our tradition to read it aloud on Christmas Eve… so I, at least, tend to be even more sensitive about adaptations of it than about adaptations of other works.
And what’s interesting about the resulting situation is that the number of adaptations of A Christmas Carol I can stand is probably greater than the combined number of adaptations I can stand of all other works. I think the reason for this is that the core of A Christmas Carol — the fundamentally important aspects that must remain intact through any other changes that occur during adaptation — is particularly lenient. Very few of Dickens’ details are crucial to the heart of the story, so it’s easy to do an adaptation true to the spirit of the original while still making all sorts of changes. (For example, Bob Cratchit can easily be a frog puppet.)
Another relevant point, I think, is proportions: I tend to find myself a little more easygoing about adaptations of a work that has been adapted many times. It’s easier to compare adaptational choices in different versions when there are different versions; and when there’s a particularly bad one, it feels less like that’s the only option, the only way people unfamiliar with the original will ever experience the story. And A Christmas Carol has been adapted more than pretty well anything else evar.
And the Muppet version is one of my favorites. Its mixture of silly and serious and its great music, not to mention its evident respect for the source material, combine into a surprisingly wonderful experience. I know it’s never been very well reviewed, and that’s always puzzled me, since I think it’s quite good as an adaptation, as a Muppet movie, and as a musical in general.
I’m always impressed with how human (for lack of a better term) the Muppets are. Excellent voice acting combined with a surprising range of facial expressions (and, I believe, with a long history of considering them people due to an extended Muppets canon) make them engaging and emotional characters in any context. When Bob and Mrs. Cratchit (played by Kermit and Piggy) are discussing Tiny Tim’s spot in the graveyard, it’s as heart-wrenching a scene as it’s ever been when portrayed by actual humans; and the earlier, brief Christmas Scat scene demonstrated the bond between father and son better — and more charmingly — than any other version of this story.
Along those same lines, I admire the hell out of Michael Caine’s ability to play the role of Scrooge not only so well in general, but so well opposite mostly puppets. He was an excellent choice for Scrooge as written for this movie, and I kindof always think of him as Scrooge whenever I see him elsewhere.
Scrooge is an interesting character when it comes to adaptations. All the story core really requires is “a character with anti-social attitudes and behaviors,” because, while Scrooge himself has a laundry list of them, you can make the point of the story by curing just one. And because of this, I can easily forgive what I see as misinterpretation of his character.
Because movies like this — adaptations of this story that anticipate any children in their target audience, typically — tend to strip Scrooge down to greed and then kinda play up the greed, and… I can’t agree with that assessment. Yes, Scrooge is greedy (“squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous”); I won’t deny that. But I’ve always felt that Scrooge’s major problem is not an active flaw like greed, but a much more quiet and insidious coldness, a lack of emotional engagement with the world.
He had a terrible past that led him to grow up as a terrible person, but I feel he’s as pitiable as he is reprehensible, suffering just as much as he causes others to suffer, because he has shut himself off from humanity out of a bitter fear that eventually turned to coldness. I’ve often (including in The Muppet Christmas Carol) seen it expressed that “Scrooge loves money,” but I don’t feel like the Scrooge we meet at the beginning of the story loves anything — and that’s precisely his problem. However, as I mentioned above, this is a misinterpretation (or at least oversimplification) I’m inclined to forgive.
Especially since, in general, the Muppets’ interpretation is so good. It’s not just the silly, blatant inclusion of Charles Dickens as the narrator (played by Gonzo) quoting (or at least paraphrasing) the novella; it’s not just little bonus moments like Joe actually being a spider or “The one twice as big as me?”; it’s their obvious understanding of the sentiment behind the story, their unwillingness to strip Christianity from a fundamentally Christian work as so many versions of A Christmas Carol do (though it’s only really a problem, I think, in a non-AU adaptation). Funny how the Muppets manage to be better professionals — willing to portray a fiction that may not be 100% in line with their own personal beliefs — than many more serious teams of writers, directors, actors, etc..
It’s possible that this is my favorite adaptation of this story. This version is certainly the one my family quotes most (ridiculously, right in the middle of reading the original), and I always look forward to watching it. However, another adaptation I absolutely adore is…
Scrooge (1970) — Musicals rule, and I think many of the songs in this one are easily as good as the Muppets’. (In fact, I think the Muppets’ formatting may have been directly inspired by this movie in many ways.) Big rollicking street numbers that get the whole district involved hit me so hard (in a good way), and the ending medley in particular makes my cry and cry.
Of course there’s also the obligatory boring (or at least inane) song from Tiny Tim (though it’s used really well in echoing voiceover later at the cemetery), and Obi-Wan’s excessively bizarre floating-among-the-spirits chant, but in general the music in this film is fantastic.
We never bothered until this very year to look up Sir Roger de Coverley and realize that December the Twenty-Fifth is based on it, but how freaking clever is that?? Whoever decided to do that is a freaking genius.
Besides the music, Albert Finney’s spectacular performance as the bitterest, most pinched Scrooge I’ve ever seen is what really sells this version. They go out of their way (particularly with a well concocted set of scenes in which Bob and then Scrooge take essentially the same walk home in order to highlight the differences between them) to characterize Scrooge as hard and unfeeling and careful to exact as much power as he can over others (and, by extension, the world he fears so much); and I can’t imagine anyone playing Scrooge as written here better than Albert Finney.
This movie makes excellent use of both Scrooge’s self-deception and tendency to carry the idiot ball (which, yes, are often one and the same)… To hear Scrooge refer to himself as “soft-hearted” and having a “generous spirit” is pretty funny, but it’s absolutely hilarious (morbidly so) to hear him declare of his debtees, “They loved me and I never knew!” and making them an enthusiastic speech, as his encoffined body is carried out of his house right behind him. Excellent humor, excellent character interpretation — and, again, an excellent performance by Albert Finney.
Scrooge also features the cutest Bob Cratchit ever, even including (which is a bold word) Kermit the freaking Frog. Of this Bob, brother remarked, “He’s such a dad,” and I have to agree: it’s his adorableness as a loving father that makes him so charming. It’s also great how the movie makes sure to integrate Bob from the very beginning, keeping him in view and important.
Belle gets much the same treatment. First of all, she’s freaking adorable, and, second, she’s integrated sooner than in the original novella and given more weight and importance. Many versions of this story introduce Belle at the Fezziwig Christmas party, but taking the next step and making her their daughter was a clever touch. It adds extra poignancy to the outcome of Scrooge’s relationship with her (if any were needed), because one must assume the extremely lovable Fezziwig parents were hurt and let down by him as well.
For some reason (a reason I’ve never been able to figure out), multiple versions of A Christmas Carol change the times at which the Spirits will show up. Then the line at the end — “The Spirits have done it all in one night!” — suddenly ceases to make sense. Scrooge is definitely guilty of that.
Since it’s really not feasible to attempt an accurate depiction of the Spirit of Christmas Past, the direction this movie went was brilliant. This sharp old woman who prefers not to look like a ghost and hushes Scrooge when he inhibits her enjoyment of the scene is, I think, actually kinda more fun than the original, no matter how many legs she does or doesn’t have.
Then Christmas Present embodies the unexpectedly harsh incisiveness of the original extremely well. In that respect, given how Present is often portrayed as kinda bumbling and stripped of everything but his jollity, he reminds me a bit of the Santa with an edge I mentioned in discussing Miracle on 34th Street. I do think it was a mistake to have Scrooge refer to him as a giant, however; though he’s certainly tall, and bulked out a bit by his costume, “giant” would never come to mind as a description for him.
And then we get to the movie’s one significant misstep, that dumbass Hell scene, a big fat “What were they thinking?” moment that I kinda feel was designed solely to give Alec Guiness more screentime. If it were only silly and stupid I wouldn’t mind so much, but it’s worse than that; its message is almost completely antithetic to the point of the Future visions and the story as a whole. Scrooge’s boosted self-deception in this context, perhaps, allows a little more than usual for a glimpse of himself in Hell when he expected to go to Heaven, but in general this scene presents an idea of Scrooge being Scared Straight rather than put back in touch with his better nature. It’s groan-worthy at best.
The movie as a whole, however, is great. And despite all the obvious sound-staging, failures of would-be clever transitions, egregious stage-lighting, mismatched takes indicating the presence of only a single camera, and dodgy audio quality to be expected of a film from barely out of the 60’s, the laughable special effects, for the time period, are actually relatively good, and the camerawork in general (angles, framing, etc.) are amazing. Still remains one of my favorites despite the visit to Hell.
Christmas Eve on Sesame Street — So this was a TV special, and in fact it’s formatted very much like an episode of the show (without, like, letter-identifying moments and shit), but I’m just going to refer to it as a movie, since that’s how I’ve always thought of it.
To start out with, badass Sesame Street was pushing boundaries of representation and inclusivity way the hell before I was born to flail ineffectually on the subject. It always makes me so happy to see such a diverse cast, especially in something from the 70’s.
I’m also always impressed by the skaters at the beginning. The ones in the costumes of various Sesame Street characters, I mean. And maybe not all of them, but definitely whoever’s in that Big Bird costume, because that thing is FREAKING HUGE, and this was back in the day when they had only the crappiest of technology available to show the person inside what was going on out in the world around them.
Also, Ernie brought fake legs and feet to the skating party. Just… let that sink in for a minute.
Of course the characterization in Sesame Street is pretty limited, but it’s really spot-on in this hour-long episode without being the kind of single-characteristic bullshit I’ve been complaining about lately. And I think the plot of this movie is cute and clever and very appropriate to the various characters involved. I love the secondary stories as well, and Cookie Monster’s dialogue during his is some of the most quotable silliness I’ve ever heard.
Big Bird, here as well as in the show in general, occupies a strange space between childhood and adulthood, being roughly the equivalent of a six-year-old but allowed a level of autonomy few six-year-olds have (mostly by necessity as he is, indeed, a very big bird). This makes him perfect for the childish belief and concern that drive this gentle plot, as well as the actions he chooses to take in response that your average six-year-old would not be free to.
Some of the other characters fall into their own weird age niches… How old is Kermit supposed to be, exactly? And Grover? These guys read as adults in many ways, but act very much like children in others. Why, specifically, do they go along with Big Bird’s dilemma so straightforwardly?
I know I’m overthinking this, but it’s interesting, OK? Clearly no adult or adult-coded character takes Big Bird’s concerns as seriously as they should; it requires his disappearance on a snowy night to drive home to them just how worried he really is. And even if Kermit and Grover are humoring him by conducting their survey, their lack of answers kinda does more harm than good. But I have a specific theory here.
It seems that Santa Claus really exists in this world, and, though it’s not entirely clear, that everyone believes in him. And in such a scenario, it only makes sense that many people at some point go through a “how does he do it?” phase. Perhaps Oscar prompted Big Bird’s phase earlier than it might otherwise have happened, but the phase itself is completely natural — and therefore the adults around Big Bird don’t take it as seriously as they should, not realizing that at this age Big Bird needs more help to handle it.
Anyway, moving on to more specific commentary. True Blue Miracle is an awesome song. Susan and her friend whose name I don’t know and their gorgeous harmony, man. Keep Christmas With You is a sweet one too.
Oh, Oscar. When he cusses out Big Bird as the subway goes by, I always laugh so hard.
I think the interviews with kids about Santa were filmed candidly, and they just chose the best ones to include in the movie. Because that shit is hilarious, and seems very realistic.
OK, I’ve made fun of Bob a lot in my lifetime, because he’s so smarmy and THOSE SWEATERS, but he really does have a voice made of liquid caramel love. And until, I think, LAST YEAR, even after having watched this movie a million billion times, I never properly understood the Keep Christmas With You scene… and I think none of my siblings did either. We always wondered why, after Bob said, “You’re early,” in a tone of surprise, Linda then takes part in the following scene as if that was prearranged. Clearly none of us were paying very good attention :D
Because all of a sudden I got it. Linda was supposed to meet Bob after singing practice (for a date, I’m convinced, on account of how much I ship them), but she sneaked in beforehand and secretly taught the kids the signs for the song as a Christmas present (OF LOVE) for Bob. My brother points out that if Bob wrote the song himself, that makes the gesture even more thoughtful and romantic. Now that I get what’s going on, I love that scene more than anything evar. SO SWEET. Speaking of which…
You can say what you want about Bert and Ernie’s relationship and whether the Workshop should or shouldn’t confirm them as a gay couple… They already come across as a couple so much of the time, and it is SO DAMN CUTE. Mr. Hooper probably regards their present-swapping O’Henry antics as the best thing he’s ever seen.
On the topic of Mr. Hooper, however… it’s a bit of a Gay ‘Thank You’ moment with Bob wishing him a happy Hanukkah. Of course I wouldn’t want to do without it — Bob does seem to be the only one that remembers Mr. Hooper doesn’t celebrate Christmas — but the emphasis is a little overdone. That’s probably just a cue for watching children to pay attention, but I would have preferred a more naturally delivered line. Oh, well; I did mention Bob being smarmy.
Gordon’s reaction to Cookie Monster’s tale of woe is the funniest thing in history, and Cookie’s horror take at the dire news is fantastic. Oh, that subplot.
And Maria is such a badass. She might as well have slapped Oscar upside the face. That she’s able to get through to him at all proves just how awesome she is. I mean, it also proves that Oscar has some un-grouchy humanity in there, but still. Maria is a badass.
Overall, though, the story is childlike and touching, and I enjoy it every year no matter how old I get. And it’s mercifully short, unlike some Christmas movies I can mention… and will…
It’s a Wonderful Life — OK, yeah, I have ADHD, and movies are the medium most difficult for me to get through. Even a well made and very enjoyable film may give me a hard time when it’s two and a half freaking hours long. That’s why I don’t always get to this one every year; it’s just daunting.
Besides its length, though, I also have some equivocal feelings about the story and its main character that make my enjoyment of this one less than perfect.
At the beginning, during the extremely well formulated and touching opening featuring the prayers of many of George’s friends and relatives, we’re told that “He never thinks about himself.” From the off, this movie wants us to consider George Bailey a selfless hero and admire the hell out of him… never admitting (or perhaps even realizing) that a seemingly selfless person, someone driven by a number of humane principles, can still live their life and do charitable things in a pretty self-centered way.
George has a tendency to make everything about him (and so do many of the other characters); and as, I think, a part of that, he never properly values the people in his life — particularly Mary, who just kinda goes along with the everything-is-about-George attitude without saying anything, does much of the real work, and saves the day in the end. As such, George Bailey is a very frustrating character to watch, especially when he’s eventually declared “The richest man in town” in a touching and triumphant scene I don’t think he’s really earned.
And in spite of all that, it’s still pretty distressing to watch the story build up a lifetime’s worth of ambitions for him, then slowly crush them all and declare, “It’s a wonderful life!” While it’s true that George’s aspirations are never very specifically delineated, it’s clear he’s interested in exploration and architecture, and — though it’s likely he would carry out any such activities in as self-centered a way as he does everything else — he at least states that he’s interested in these things in the light of social progress and charity.
And, yes, absolutely, as Peter states, the Building and Loan, in a small way, contributes to social progress and charity. But let’s face it — the Baileys are bad at it. It’s a business based on faith in humanity; Peter’s kindness is very carefully established from the very beginning of the movie; and even Billy with his many animals comes across as a sweet-hearted innocent. But the business lacks any sound business principles; it’s stated multiple times in the film that Peter, at least, is no businessman; and Billy… well, the problem with Billy is self-evident.
The long and the short of it is that I think George’s goals beyond the Building and Loan were probably worthwhile — at the very least to get him out of (and into something greater than) a yoke he only submitted to in the first place for the sake of maintaining family honor and tradition — and possibly would have suited his personality and talents better than what he ended up with. And while the message of learning to value what you have instead of being fixated on what you wanted but never got is a valid one, that doesn’t change the fact that the movie set up a worthy set of goals and desires for this character and then explicitly disappointed him.
Of course in reality we constantly fail to achieve worthwhile and suitable goals and desires and are forced to settle for more or less wonderful lives outside our original plans. But not so much in Hollywood. And it’s jarring to see that touch of realism in a movie about a dumbass guardian angel making it so some self-centered guy (whose very realistic state of having given up his hopes and dreams is supposed to make him particularly sympathetic) was never born.
So, yes. I love this movie, but I have some pretty significant issues with it. Now let us commence the random thoughts section of the commentary. I’d like to organize them a little better, but this stupid entry has already taken me a month and a half, and I want to get it done already.
The dialogue is generally pretty well written, but more than occasionally, the final line of a scene is awkward and not a very good ending for that scene. It seems that allowing the scene to go on while it faded out so the dialogue could continue naturally, rather than trying to come up with a snappy joke or clever remark to cut it off with, hadn’t been invented yet.
How old were these people when they acted this movie?? At the beginning, Mary likes like she’s in her mid-20’s, not graduating high school. Her dress is cute as shit, though. I would so wear that in a bigger size. At least I assume she’s a size negative five or something.
The swimming pool scene is charming and funny no matter how many times you watch it. It’s largely unimportant in the long term, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
This movie probably has the least to do with Christmas of anything in this entry. They didn’t even try to come up with some nonsense about Christmas spirit here. Which is fine. Just, as I mentioned above, kinda funny.
I love how these main characters are allowed to be super dorks without dignity, but are still likeable and not jerkasses. That’s… rare, I think. (No matter what I said about George above, I don’t dislike him, nor think he’s a jerkass.)
The “holding the bathrobe hostage” scene is funny, yes, but also very distressing. Similarly, Violet’s subplot makes me rage. Nothing like taking advantage of women and slut-shaming to work up some proper holiday spirit. There’s how it’s a Christmas movie!!
“See it still smells like pine needles around here.” “Thank you.” Why are those the funniest lines evar. And then there’s, “Most people hate me, but I don’t like them either, so that makes it all even,” which I also love.
There’s a lot of poignantly appropriate ship imagery in the dialogue throughout this film.
I like to imagine that when George shakes Potter’s hand, he has Curdie’s gift. What animal’s claw or hoof or talon does Potter’s hand feel like? We’ll never know.
The scene in which Uncle Billy loses the $8,000 is very well set up: not only very natural and believable, but downright distracting so that, if you’re not deliberately watching for it, you’ll miss the transfer of the money completely.
Fucking Violet’s subplot. Probably the thing that makes me angriest about the movie, though I’m spending far fewer words on in than on George’s personal problems.
Dumbass still doesn’t recognize Mary’s value and think to confide in her when things go wrong. Because the loss of $8,000 is too big and important to let a mere woman in on. The looks he throws her at the very end do suggest, though, that he’s maybe finally starting to appreciate her.
I think it spurs Potter on even more than anything else to see Harry protecting Billy. Hell, it kindof annoys me, and I’m not an asshole like Potter, and I (despite being appalled at the level of trust George places in him) see some value in Billy as a person.
“What are you but a warped, frustrated young man?” ABSOLUTELY TRUE.
That Mark Twain line sure doesn’t make sense.
The old-school music in this movie, despite being nothing I would ever listen to on its own, is very effective in context.
George running through town wishing Merry Christmas to everyone and everything is one of the most adorable, funny, dorky scenes ever. There’s a reason some things are iconic.
Harry singing Auld Lang Syne staring George creepily in the face is… creepy.
No closing statements, your honor. This damned AEL is finally finished XD