WASHINGTON, December 23, 2013 — It’s nearly Christmas again, which means it’s also time to take a look back in time at those movies that, for this writer at least, best express that good old-fashioned Christmas spirit in one way, shape, or form.
Claire Hickey and Bob Siegel have offered their top picks in years past, so a hat tip to them for providing us with some great Top 10 ideas to consider. But we’re also striking off in new directions this year, including our addition of at least one exotic, newish film you may very well never have heard about.
This year’s Top 10 Christmas classic films are listed in reverse order. Which means you have to read this whole article (and our next one) to get to our top pick. Feel free to add your own Christmas movie picks — and pans — in our comments section.
And now, On Dasher!
10. “Babes in Toyland.” This 1961 Disney flick is likely only remembered today by now-aging Boomers whose moms dragged them off to see it when it was first released or when they watched it later on TV. The Disney studios had obviously hoped they’d have a big hit on their hands, appealing to youthful audiences by casting teen idols like Tommy Sands and Disney’s pre-adolescent/adolescent dream girl Annette Funicello in key roles. But they also cast their demographic net a bit wider by also including longtime song-and-dance man Ray Bolger — that popular Scarecrow from “Wizard of Oz” — as the villain.
“Babes” was based very loosely on an original Victor Herbert operetta dating from the dawn of the 20th century, which itself was based on a collection of fairy tales. Herbert’s operetta was actually quite a dark fantasy. Disney, of course, changed that, re-molding the story into a more positive confection that tracked with Christmas and the Christmas message.
We agree with Bob Siegel that at least the first half of this film is a bit on the tedious side, which likely sank it as a recurring holiday favorite. But what this updated Disney musical version does retain is much of Herbert’s enchanting musical score, including its wistful song, “Toyland,” and perhaps its best known tune, the purely instrumental “March of the Toys,” here reimagined as the “March of the Toy Soldiers.”
This scene in the Disney film is brilliantly executed by means of way pre-CGI special effects, which conjure the formerly inanimate toy soldiers to come to life, led into battle by the very human, but reduced-in-size Tommy Sands.
It’s both the joy of hearing Victor Herbert’s wonderful music again and the surprisingly good special effects that get this Christmas film a place on the bottom rung of our Top 10 list. Let’s take a look at that great Toy Soldier scene to recapture a magical moment. The scene starts about one minute into the following clip, with a tiny Tommy Sands grabbling a trumpet and sounding the battle cry for the soldiers.
9. “The Lemon Drop Kid” (1951). This Bob Hope classic, based, like the musical, “Guys and Dolls,” on the popular fiction of Damon Runyon, stars Marilyn Maxwell as well.
Current generations likely don’t even know who Bob Hope was. But he, along with pal—and fellow song and dance man—Bing Crosby, were two of the most popular film stars for a good 25 years running. The indefatigable Hope even caught his second great entertainment wave as a TV personality. He also hosted the Oscar ceremonies for years—arguably doing a far better job at it than his often dull or vulgar successors.
Hope was also known as a stalwart supporter of American GIs wherever they were stationed. He spearheaded immensely popular USO-style Christmas shows for soldiers in active warzones for decades. Unsurprisingly, he also unhesitatingly supported America’s war efforts. This seriously politically incorrect move seems to have permanently written him out of the entertainment world’s historical narrative, consigning him to the quietly updated Hollywood Blacklist, 2013 style.
All historical revisionism aside, Hope was a decent hoofer, a comic genius, and a pretty good vocalist to boot, all of which are on display in the following clip in which this film’s signature Christmas tune, “Silver Bells,” is sung on screen for the very first time. The Kid from Cleveland is aided and abetted by co-star Marilyn Maxwell.
Trivia quiz: At the beginning of this clip, you trivia buffs should pay careful attention. You might recognize the gruff singing and speaking voice of the very crabby Santa who opens the clip. We’ll tell you who he is right after the video if you haven’t already guessed.
Hey, no peeking. Just watch.
Right! Some of you guessed correctly. (Likely fast-aging Boomers, such as yours truly.) For those who couldn’t figure it out, our Bad Santa is none other than William Frawley, best known as a TV actor in his role as Ricky and Lucy Ricardo’s cranky neighbor Fred Mertz on “I Love Lucy.”
The rest of “Lemon Drop” doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Christmas, actually. But it put “Silver Bells” firmly on the popular Christmas song map and that’s why it’s on our list.
8. “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945). Speaking of Bob Hope’s pal, let’s turn now to this sentimental Bing Crosby classic. As Claire Hickey corrected observed, “only part of this movie takes place at Christmas but it gets lots of play during the holidays. The basic message behind this movie is peace and goodwill so it fits.” Which it does.
The film is also a reminder of an odd period in the history of U.S. film. In this otherwise thoroughly Protestant country (back in the day), good-hearted, particularly Irish-American priests were frequently cast in American films as heroic and morally upright role models, often practicing their faith in poor, inner-city parishes. But at the same time—it was unthinkable for a Catholic to become President. Go figure.
Bing Crosby, playing a youngish parish priest in this film, certainly fit the role of an Irish Catholic priest, since he’d grown up under a parochial school regime himself as a youth. This role also gave the amazingly popular actor/vocalist a chance to sing in the movie, which, along with its two-hanky story line, was a big hit on the silver screen. After all, World War II was drawing to a close for America. Thoughts were quickly turning back toward home, family, and an overwhelming pride and gratitude for being part of one mighty and newly triumphant Nation under God. Today, such thoughts and sentiments would be deemed seditious, or at least unconstitutional.
At any rate, here’s a clip of Der Bingle singing the title song, accompanied by a bevy of musically accomplished singing nuns:
7. “The Santa Clause” (1994). Bob Siegel called this “A unique idea and fresh take on the Santa Claus legend. This time,” Bob continued, “we learn that ‘Santa Claus’ is actually the title of an office to be filled. When one Santa dies, another takes his place.”
At the outset, this sounds like another typically stupid Hollywood plot line. But you never know. And in this case, the stupid plotline was made funny and incredibly amusing due to the creativity of this film’s top star. Or, as Bob put it in his piece, “The movie would not have worked without the subtle but piercing wit of Tim Allen. His timing and facial mannerisms are priceless.”
Second the motion. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. One of few modern Christmas classics. The following official 1994 trailer will give you a clue as to why.
6. “White Christmas” (1954). Included in our selection of this film is its predecessor, the earlier “Holiday Inn” (1942), classified as either a tie or an honorable mention. We can’t decide.
“Holiday Inn” paired Bing Crosby with Fred Astaire as a duo of song and dance guys who get involved with trying to make a go of a special Inn that opens only during holidays. Hence the title. Get it? And yes, it’s likely that the eponymous hotel chain derived its name from this film.
“Holiday Inn” is distinctive because it was the first film appearance of the signature song for both films, Irving Berlin’s immortal “White Christmas.” As sung by Crosby, the song has remained a sentimental Christmas favorite, evoking warm cozy memories of all those wonderful Christmas Pasts that reside firmly in our generally idyllic childhood memories.
Banish the thought, of course, that while a lot of those Christmases may have indeed been white, they were often, for many, not exactly “merry” or “bright.”
For whatever reason, however, we want to recall all of them as warmly as Bing does. This effectively transforms Berlin’s tune into a nostalgic hymn that’s not, perhaps, a true remembrance of our past Christmas holidays; but instead, a hopefully conjuring of how we wish those holidays had been and how we hope that they will be during Christmas seasons yet to come.
When it comes to a song like this, Crosby knows how to deliver the goods. Tempo, phrasing, even his character’s persona are perfect. At least for those of a certain age, particularly on a dark, snowy, lonely night when Christmas lights can be seen flickering in the distance, listening to Bing croon his way through this classic song can still bring a wistful tear to the eye.
The magic here is all the more astonishing when you realize that this quintessential modern Christmas classic was actually penned by a Jewish composer.
“Holiday Inn” today gets a bit neglected, however, given its rather unconvincing plot. A scene where Der Bingle performs in blackface is also a touchy issue these days (though it wasn’t back then), and it’s sometimes cut during some of the film’s rare TV appearances.
The whole thing is ironic because Crosby, as a skillful jazz lover and jazz singer himself, was a close friend and admirer of Louis Armstrong among others, and a longtime champion of equal billing (and bathroom privileges) for black and white singers and musicians alike.
Which is why “White Christmas,” a sort-of 1954 remake of the earlier film, is usually the one we see on TV today during the holidays. A quirky but very talented Danny Kaye stepped into the Fred Astaire role, joining Crosby in this film which, given the still-powerful popularity of Berlin’s Christmas tune, adopted that song’s title as its own.
The story line is altered somewhat in this film as well. While still based on the travails involved in making a profit at an out-of-the-way inn while keeping your relationships with the opposite sex intact, this time, there’s a World War II background that gives the plot a patriotic lift.
This adept retooling of “Holiday Inn” was a movie palace hit. It’s plot and sentiments proved hugely appealing to a Greatest Generation that was on the make at last, having endured a lifetime of Depression, WWII, not to mention the recently concluded Korean conflict.
Here’s the final production number from that film. Appropriately, it’s a grand reprise of Berlin’s hit. Everyone joins in with Crosby, Kaye, their best girls, and the entire crew of actors, singers, and ex-GIs, bringing “White Christmas” home again at last.
Pull out your hankies. This is a unified, patriotic America the likes of which we may never see or feel ever again. It will be missed.
Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.
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