Christmas Movie Festival – By Popular Demand!

December 25th, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

All right, I admit this is nothing anyone asked for – it’s just a rundown on our personal post-Thanksgiving Christmas movie fest. Barb and I almost always spend the evening watching a movie (sometimes a TV show or two), and this year we determined to watch nothing but Yuletide-themed movies till Christmas itself rolled around.

So you may want to run a copy of this off to guide you for your Yuletide watching next year (or, if you are sane, you may not).

Here, pretty much in the order we watched them, are our selections. We started with bad-taste Christmas comedies, then moved to TV Xmas episodes, followed by more traditional favorites. Nothing religious. We have no intention of debasing this secular holiday with religion.

The Thing – ****. The Howard Hawks-produced 1951 film. Admittedly not a Christmas movie, but the Blu-ray just came out, and the film is set at the North Pole. We were warming up for Christmas by vicariously experiencing all that cold in the company of a fire and hot chocolate.

Bad Santa – ****. Okay, I understand this is not by any rational accounting a four-star movie. But it accomplishes something very special. It surrounds its good heart with layers and layers of darkly funny coal. Billy Bob is a favorite of mine, and Willie T. Stokes is one of his finest creations.

Bad Santa 2 – ****. All right, I realize this is even less rational. Most reviewers hated this. Hated it! Apparently they didn’t notice how hilarious it is. Billy Bob’s commitment to his character is complete, and he has Kathy Bates as his cheerfully sociopathic mother to explain a lot about Willie’s development as a human being. The now adult Brett Edward Kelly as grown kid Thurman Merman damn near steals the picture, which is even nastier than the first one but with an even better heart.

A Christmas Horror Story – ***. This has become our favorite Christmas horror movie, dealing as it does with Krampus and featuring William Shatner as a hard-drinking, smiling radio personality, linking several interwoven stories, of which the most memorable features a wonderfully bad-ass Santa. Many of those working on this were part of the Orphan Black creative team.

Office Christmas Party – ***. Almost as dark as Bad Santa at times, this features Jason Bateman (nearly rivaling his Game Night performance), playing a funny straight man to an unending array of current comic talent. It, too, turns out to have a good heart but – like the Bad Santa films – not a sentimental one.

Murdoch MysteriesOnce Upon a Murdoch Christmas and A Merry Murdoch Christmas – **. We love this series. It’s uneven, but the recurring cast is winning and often the episodes are first-rate. These two Christmas episodes are among the worst outings, however, over-the-top and even embarrassing at times. A third, more recent Christmas Murdoch is better, but the bar isn’t set high.

Poirot – “The Theft of the Royal Ruby.” ****. One of two excellent Christmas episodes of the wonderful, long-running David Suchet series, this Christie adaptation – set in that great art-deco house that turns up in multiple episodes – is the best, amusing and even exciting.

A Nero Wolfe Mystery – “A Christmas Party.” ***. The repertory cast here is even hammier than usual – most Canadian-produced series, like Murdoch, do well with the central casting but reveal a shallow bench among the Canadian day players. Still, the byplay between Timothy Hutton’s Archie and the late, great Maury Chaykin’s Wolfe is a gift that keeps on giving.

Holiday Inn – ****. A masterpiece of music and well-motivated situation comedy with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire playing off each other beautifully. Just fast-forward through the embarrassing blackface number, “Abraham.” By the way, I see blackface as a cultural thing that once was accepted – so, in that context, I can watch Eddie Cantor in his blackface scenes with little if any shame. Problem with this particular blackface number is…it’s an awful song. Irving Berlin wasn’t perfect. He didn’t think “White Christmas” was the hit in his new score (he figured “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” was the winner).

White Christmas – **. Pains me to say it, because I love Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and my late pal Miguel Ferrer’s mom, Rosemary Clooney…but this film mostly stinks. Even Bing didn’t like it. “Count Your Blessings” with Bing and Rosie is lovely, though.

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas – ***. Barb and I reverted to bad-taste comedy after White Christmas – to cleanse the palate. This is very funny, with some uncomfortable moments in the Neil Patrick Harris section (funny how quickly certain things have dated in the #metoo era). Even for non-dopers like Barb and me, this stoner comedy is funny and has a nice pace, getting gradually more absurd as it goes. And represents a rare, really good use of 3-D in a 21st Century film.

Scrooged – *. I love Bill Murray. Groundhog Day, which covers similar ground, is one of my favorite movies. And I love the Christmas Carol story. But this is a forced, shrill comedy with Bill Murray trying uncharacteristically too hard. The whole movie is hysterical, but in a humorless way, and seems filled to the brim with personalities of the moment who were soon to fade away.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – ***. I love this movie, and know it by heart, but there’s no denying it’s uneven. Still, it’s gradually become a favorite among many and has eclipsed the better first film in the series, because of course Christmas is at this third entry’s heart. Julie Louis Dreyfuss’s presence reflects smart (and lucky) casting. Where Scrooged doesn’t seem to really believe its positive message, Christmas Vacation manages to celebrate family even as it lampoons it.

Meet Me in St. Louis – ****. This should not be a four-star movie. It’s almost plotless. The co-star is Tom Drake, for Pete’s sake (or is that Pete Drake for Tom’s sake – I can’t remember). But it’s beautifully directed and perfectly paced, with Judy Garland at her loveliest and most appealing. And Margaret O’Brien is magically good as the little girl who, if you really listen to her, is apparently the first Goth Girl.

Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 – *** (for the Shout Factory Blu-ray). Okay, I watched this by myself – not Barb’s idea of a Christmas movie. It’s really not worthy of this rating. About a third of the movie is flashbacks from the first film. But the slasher anti-hero, Billy, played by Robert Brian Wilson, is fascinating – is that a terrible performance, or a great one? I’m just not sure! All I know is it’s “Garbage day!”). And the latterday “making of” documentary (longer than the movie!) is one of the best of its kind.

A Christmas Story – ****. Now we’re into the classics. One of my top four. No matter how hard the world tries to diminish this Jean Shepherd classic – with licensed toys, mini-leg lamps, t-shirts and other crap – this movie remains the best film about childhood in 20th Century America ever made. (There’s even an abysmal stage production – aired live, so you can “re-live” the experience, when I thought you relived it by watching the original again!) I love that Darren McGavin (TV’s first Mike Hammer and the great Carl Kolchak) has become an iconic figure, thanks to his perfect performance as Ralphie’s Old Man. Barb and I first saw this with my late, beloved aunt Beth on Christmas Day on the film’s first release. Loved it then. Love it now. It influenced Road to Perdition, by the way – the adult narrator recalling his childhood. Michael O’Sullivan Jr.’s childhood did vary some from Ralphie’s, admittedly.

Scrooge – ****. The Alastair Sim 1951 version. Accept no substitutes.

Miracle on 34th Street – ****. The Edmund Gwenn version. Again, accept no substitutes. This is Hollywood mid-20th Century studio filmmaking at its finest – perfect script and direction, with even the smallest part perfectly cast (Thelma Ritter!). No major stars – John Payne, wonderful, and Maureen O’Hara, also wonderful, were B+ talent, and Edmund Gwenn a little-known character actor whose only other real claim to fame is as a scientist in Them! And yet all of ‘em will live forever, thanks to this impeccably constructed film. Shot on location, by the way, at the real Macy’s in the real New York City.

It’s a Wonderful Life – ****. We haven’t watched this yet this year. We don’t watch it every Christmas season, because it’s a rough ride, in spots. But – like Groundhog Day – you have to forgive the protagonist his flaws in order to witness his redemption. You know what Wonderful Life and the two Bad Santa films have in common? Their protagonist tries to commit suicide, saved by Christmas in the form of Clarence the angel and Merman Thurman, the…God, I’m not sure what.

Merry Christmas, everybody. See you next year.



9 Responses to “Christmas Movie Festival – By Popular Demand!”

  1. John Hocking says:

    Okay, points for the Alastair Sim Christmas Carol. Almost everybody agrees it’s classic and I don’t want to dispute that.
    What about George C. Scott’s 1984 version of the Dickens tale?

    I find the entire production pretty grand, but think one of the greatest measures of any adaptation of Christmas Carol is how fearsome the Ghost of Christmas Future is, and how intensely the scene in which Scrooge encounters his headstone is presented.

    In Scott’s version the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come is terrifying, and mercilessly thrusts the bleak horror of a life poorly lived upon Scrooge, who crumbles under the weight of his loss. A wrenching performance by George C. Scott that never fails to move me.

    But then I can’t watch the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life Life where the pharmacist boxes poor George’s ear without my throat clenching up and tears forcing their way out of my eyes. It’s a challenge to stay hard-boiled at Christmas.

  2. Ron says:

    My favorite is the 1970 musical “Scrooge” with Albert Finney in the title role. The depiction of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is pretty creepy there too, especially once his hood is thrown back. Unfortunately, this is followed by a 5-minute scene down in hell that plays somewhat like a bad Monty Python sketch, before Scrooge wakes up back in his bed. I remember this bit was (wisely) cut out of the TV broadcasts.

  3. Gary Bush says:

    Happy Holidays Max and Barb.
    Liked the movies you chose. Small correction Maureen O’Hara not Maureen O’Sullivan in “Miracle on 34th Street.” Aside O’Hara one of the most beautiful actresses to light of the screen.

  4. JohnJ says:

    Lots of great choices in your list. I went back to the Rifftrax well and watched their 2011 and 2012 Christmas specials and held myself to only the first of the 3 versions of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” this year.
    My other Christmas standards are “Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman” and the sequel “The Snowman and the Snowdog.” I only watch bits and pieces of the original Grinch and Charlie Brown Christmas toons as I pretty much have them committed to memory.
    I also finally popped for the dvd of “Love, Actually” as I’ve seen this too many times without the Martin Freeman bits.
    Hope we all had a Patrick Swayze Christmas this year.

  5. I have only seen the Scott version once, many years ago, but found his performance unconvincing and flat (and I usually like his work). I’ll try to revisit it and give it another chance.

    I make the “O’Sullivan” “O’Hara” fumble every year, it seems. Nate will get around to correcting it.

    Thanks for the comments!

  6. Oh, and I like the Finney musical version of SCROOGE. I watch that every year or two. Leslie Briccuse was Anthony Newley’s songwriting partner, and though Newley didn’t participate in writing that score, it’s similar to their work together…and Newley played a stage version of the musical in London and on tour in the UK. Wish I could have seen it.

  7. Dan says:

    Great list Mr. Collins. My wife & I watched HOLIDAY INN for the first time this year and your review is spot on (especially regarding the cringe inducing Abraham scene). Two others that I love that didn’t make your list are the John Wayne version of 3 GODFATHERS and the hilarious original version of WE’RE NO ANGELS starring Bogie alongside Peter Ustinov & the brilliantly cast Aldo Ray. It’s a real gem!

  8. Thomas Zappe says:

    I hate to weigh in so late in the discussion, but we just finished watching THE BISHOP’S WIFE with Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Monty Wooley, Elsa Lanchester and a bunch of favorite and/or stereotypical faces in supporting roles. I gave one of my best homilies after seeing this quite a few years back.

    What I took away from it [and what I preached about] is that it wasn’t the middle grade miracles that Cary Grant performed, but rather his positive and validating approach to people that made the biggest difference. And also that you don’t have to be an angel to do that sort of thing all year long. Just as important is that the film still rings as sincere all these years later, no mean feat.

    Oh well, this is about as much goodness as I can stomach for now. New Year’s Eve is juggernaughting it’s way towards us, watch out for the crazy people.