Special Christmas Movie Edition

December 15th, 2020 by Max Allan Collins

It’s officially Christmas – the card from Pee-Wee Herman has arrived at the Collins household! It’s the one at the center of the Pee-Wee wreath.

For those of you who need a reminder, here are the five great Christmas movies:

1. Scrooge (1951). Alistair Sim is the definitive Scrooge in the definitive filming of A Christmas Carol.

2. Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Hollywood filmmaking at its best, with Edmund Gwen the definitive, real Santa Claus, Natalie Wood in her greatest child performance, John Payne reminding us he should have been a major star, and Maureen O’Hara as a smart, strong career woman/working mother who could not be more glamorous.

3. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Heartwarming but harrowing, this film is home to one of James Stewart’s bravest performances and happens to be Frank Capra’s best film. (I thanked him for it in the Green Room at Good Morning America in 1981 – promoting the Dick Tracy comic strip.)

4. A Christmas Story (1983), Jean Shepherd’s unlikely claim to fame, and a Christmas movie with Mike Hammer and Carl Kolchak in it. Now if the PBS specials about Ralphie and his family would only emerge on legal home video!

5. Christmas Vacation (1989) uncovers every Christmas horror possible when families get together and Daddy tries too hard. This holds up very well and has unexpectedly eclipsed the original film.

But Christmas movies, particularly since Hallmark decided to own the “sort of” genre, are so cluttering the airwaves and cable channels and streaming services, you folks need some help navigating choppy waters. So here is a stocking filled with worthwhile examples (some of this derives from a previous post).

Bad Santa (2003). This dark comedy has a warm heart, but you have to wade through a whole lot of black humor to get there. Billy Bob Thornton is wonderful, but here’s a special salute to the late John Ritter (who apparently died during the production) for the funniest moments in a side-splitting film. It’s become a Christmas classic at our house, and the very underrated sequel, Bad Santa 2 (2016), is perhaps even funnier with Kathy Bates almost stealing the picture playing Billy Bob Thorton’s mother, who deserves more coal than anybody in either picture.

Holiday Inn (1942) is easily better than White Christmas, although the latter has its charms – it’s helped keep Danny Kaye from being forgotten, for one, and my pal Miguel Ferrer’s mom is in it. The original has better songs and is funnier and ultimately more heart-warming.

Bell, Book and Candle (1958) is an old favorite of ours, the the movie Kim Novak and James Stewart made together after Vertigo. With Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs stealing scenes left and right, it’s a precursor to Bewitched and might seem a better choice for Halloween, only it’s set at Christmas. I love the George Dunning score (he did some of the best scores for the original Star Trek TV series).

The Family Man (2000) with Nic Cage, a modern reworking of It’s a Wonderful Life, heartwarming and funny. Cage may be an over-the-top actor, but the man commits – he gives one thousand percent to every performance, and this time he has a wonderful movie to do it in. This is a favorite of my son Nate’s, whose goals in life include seeing every Nic Cage movie.

The Twelve Days of Christmas (2004). Okay, so it’s a shameless reworking of Groundhog’s Day as a Christmas movie, but this admittedly minor TV flick is funny and rewarding – good-hearted but with a darkly comic sensibility. Steven Weber is excellent as the successful slick businessman (similar to Cage in The Family Man) who has twelve tries to get Christmas Eve right. Molly Shannon gets her best post-SNL role.

Three Godfathers (1948). This John Ford western stars John Wayne and is surprisingly gritty and even harrowing before a finale that you may find too sentimental. There’s some humor, too, and Ford’s first color film is visually beautiful. It’s dedicated to Harry Carey and “introduces” Harry Carey, Jr., who is very good, as is Pedro Armendariz.

Prancer (1989). This features an amazingly naturalistic performance from child actor Rebecca Herrell. It’s a sort of smalltown/rural variation on Miracle on 34th Street. Is the reindeer the little girl helps back to health really Santa’s Prancer? Sam Elliot is uncompromising as the father who doesn’t understand his daughter, whose mother has died.

Remember the Night (1940) is probably second best (after Double Indemnity) of the films Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurray made together. It’s written by Preston Sturges – should I really have to say anything more? – and makes its humanistic points with sentiment, not sentimentality. It’s really a gem worth looking for.

I, the Jury (1953). Let’s all wait for the eventual 3-D Blu-ray release, shall we? But this much underrated first Mike Hammer movie is set at Christmas and plays off of that fact throughout, with Christmas cards and carols the connective tissue between scenes. I continue to feel Biff Elliott was much underrated, and the cast is filled with wonderful character actors. The great John Alton shot it.

A Christmas Horror Story (2015) features William Shatner, excellent as the comic glue (a disc jockey) holding together inter-related stories about Krampus and Christmas. There are almost as many horror movies about Christmas as there are Christmas movies, but this is one of the best. It was put together by many of the Orphan Black people.

Office Christmas Party (2016) is a raunchy comedy whose preview in the theater (remember those?) turned me off. Somehow I wound up seeing it on Blu-ray and it’s very funny and eventually betrays a good heart. The great cast includes Jason Bateman and Kate McKinnon.

Scrooge (1970) is the second-best Christmas Carol movie. Albert Finney is wonderful as Ebenezer in this musical version, with the Leslie Briccuse score perhaps the one most like his work with Anthony Newley, who did not contribute to this score but who played in the much-seen British stage version (which came after the film).

Arthur Christmas (2012) is a CGI cartoon that rivals the best of Pixar, and its script is witty and smart. A British production, the voices include James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy and Jim Broadbent. The neglected son of Santa rises to the occasion when a child’s toy isn’t delivered despite a state-of-the-art technologically advanced system of his favored brother’s. I see a lot of these computer animated movies, as a grandfather to a five year-old boy, and many of them make me want to scream. This one is beautifully crafted to work for kids and adults.

Also, don’t forget It Happened One Christmas (1977), which I wrote about here last year.

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Skyboat Media has posted a wonderful write-up about Nolan and his upcoming return in Skim Deep. It should be available now on both audio and in trade paperback (Hard Case Crime).

Speaking of Skyboat, here’s a great review of their terrific audio of the Mike Hammer novel, Masquerade for Murder, read so beautifully by Stefan Rudnicki.

Here’s an extremely frustrating review. Overall, it’s excellent and borders on a rave. But it concludes by saying the reader is unlikely to read another Nate Heller novel because of objecting to Heller as a character on apparent grounds of political correctness. Next week I’ll say God bless us, everyone. This week, make it: God save us.


10 Responses to “Special Christmas Movie Edition”

  1. Mark Lambert says:

    Thanks for the Christmas list! Re: “A Christmas Story” — a close friend and our girlfriends at the time saw it together in the theater when it was first released. The two guys loved it, the women were both sort of “meh” about it, which surprises me in retrospect. I used to talk about that movie to people all the time for the first few years after it was released, and no one had seen it or heard of it. I am happy that most everyone has seen it many times nowadays and it has become iconic — it deserves that status. I’ve probably seen that movie 40 times or more, but on our latest viewing my wife noted the Frankenstein’s monster head that was next to the head of Ralphie’s little brother Randy, as Randy slept amongst the gifts after the present opening. I was stunned that I had never seen that before! My wife mentioned it, and I backed up and paused, and lo and behold, my wife was right! A Frankenstein’s monster head, bigger than little Randy’s head, right behind his noggin. Something to look for next time you watch this gem of a movie!

  2. One of the reasons why A CHRISTMAS STORY is so endlessly rewatchable is that it breaks with traditional narratives by being relentlessly episodic. The presence of Jean Shepard’s adult voice with its purring late-night radio resonance contrasted with the childhood being depicted is another major factor. We saw this on its initial, unsuccessful release in a movie theater at a matinee Christmas day with my late Aunt Beth, a warm, funny, fun human being with a laugh so infectious she always seemed a little embarrassed about it.

  3. MARK O LAMBERT says:

    P.S. — The Pee Wee Christmas cards are wonderful!!

  4. Gary R. Bush says:

    I always thought “Die Hard,” was a good Christmas movie.

  5. Tam Martin says:

    We’re No Angels (1955) is my personal favorite for Christmas movies. If you have not seen it, plesae give it a try. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048801/

  6. stephen borer says:

    & thank you for sharing the P’s Christmas cards !!

  7. Michael says:

    Currently reading come spy with me. Very enjoyable read of classic spy fiction. The era is perfect and the celebrity cameos make the book more interesting. John Sand is perfect and Mrs sand is formidable in her own right. Looking forward to the further adventures of the newly married couple! Congrats on the launch of a new series. I’m definitely going to follow it going forward!!!!!

  8. Nate and I disagree about DIE HARD as an Xmas movie. He says it is, I say it isn’t, but we both love it.

    Saw WE’RE NO ANGELS years ago. Don’t remember it well and need to revisit.

    Michael, thanks for the COME SPY WITH ME kudos!

  9. That Christmas variation on GROUNDHOG DAY is 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS EVE (not just ‘CHRISTMAS’). Well-worth watching.

  10. Stan says:

    Prancer is a hell of a little tear jerker…kind of out of place for its time.

    I remember going to see Prancer on Christmas Eve with my mother, sisters and an aunt. Prior to the show we stopped and got something to eat at a diner. While my sisters were occupied with each other I checked out the menu and overheard my mother in a whispered conversation with my aunt. They were discussing my father. My mom thought he was
    “Gone for good this time and not coming back” while her sister was certain he would return. I was oblivious to the fact
    my dad had even left, I simply assumed he had been at work. I quickly buried all my fears over what I had heard. Sure my dad could be a mean drunk, but he was my dad. My dad who would come home from work 2-3 hours late drunk with a bag of White Castle and horror movie from Joe’s Video for me to watch (he’d usually pass out before the previews ended), to a 10 yr old boy that’s a pretty cool dad.

    I don’t know how far along in to the movie it is, but by the time Sam Elliot tells
    his daughter she has to go live with her aunt I lost it…not only was that bad enough/sad as hell, but combined with the possibility of my dad running out on us I just lost it and began sobbing. Sobbing to the point that my mom had to switch seats with my younger sister to comfort me.

    I still tear up just thinking of that movie and I sob like a baby every time it’s on.

    In a just world it would have been a smash hit, or maybe I am just a big sucker for shit about orphan kids and animals.

    I balled like a baby at a Route 66 episode a few years back (I bought the Shout factory complete series) where the guys are cruising down a rural stretch on there way to their next adventure when they are stopped by a young boy trying to pull his mule down the road. They laugh at the kid and his dilemma only to be scolded by the boy for laughing at a situation they know nothing about…turned out the kid was an orphan and trying to sell his best friend/pet jackass for money to survive.
    On the upside the fellas save the day and I believe the kid gets to keep his donkey.

    Kids and animals, man!!