WASHINGTON, December 24, 2013 – You read about our first batch of Christmas film winners in our previous article. Those five previous films constituted the back five of our Top 10 list, numbers 10 to 6 in countdown format to be precise. Here are the rest, our top five, concluding with our winner, our Number 1 Christmas hit for 2013.
5. Miracle on 34th Street (1947). It’s odd to think back that, during this writer’s very Roman Catholic childhood, most Catholic parental units used to follow the Catholic censor’s instructions, forbidding us to watch this holiday shopping classic on TV in the 1950s. That was due to its “low moral tone” as on publication put it.
Later in life, when we matured into young adults rebellious and wicked enough to actually watch this forbidden film, we quickly recognized where the censor discovered this “low moral tone:” the locus is the film’s matter-of-fact treatment of divorce and single parenthood, much more controversial back then than it is today. Likely no one remembers this in 2013.
The best part of this film, along with John Payne’s great nice-guy turn as our secular hero, is Edmund Gwenn’s phenomenally believable Kris Kringle. At the end of the film, this guy makes you wonder if there really is a Santa Claus after all. If so, it’s surely the ghost of Edmund Gwenn.
Here’s a key clip from the (not very perfectly) colorized edition of this originally black and white film.
4. “A Christmas Carol” (1951). Our Top 10 list thus far has been amazingly U.S.-centric. But what the heck. Until fairly recently, Hollywood was the place where the majority of all movies were cranked out.
But let’s take a detour now from La-La Land to London back in the 1800s to explore a key British invasion into America’s—and Hollywood’s—Christmastime psyche.
By our lights, though, the 1951 British film version of Charles Dickens’ timeless short novel “A Christmas Carol” (its U.S. title, though it was called “Scrooge” during its UK release)—starring veteran English thespian Alastair Sim as the old skinflint—comes closest to Dickens’ original, which is really quite dark if you read the original.
This darkness, though accurately portrayed, is the rap some have against this particular film iteration of Dickens’ tale. Although there is reputedly a colorized version available (we haven’t seen it), the original, stark, black and white film, along with Sim’s nasty, scowling visage that persists unbroken until nearly the film’s final scene—that’s the version to view if you have the inclination and like your Victorian squalor reasonably accurate.
In this film, Scrooge’s London is as grim and unpleasant as that ultimate penny-pincher himself, reflecting Dickens’ brooding, lifetime bitterness toward an Industrial Age Britain that had bequeathed to him the haunted, impoverished, and desperate childhood he never entirely outgrew.
Yet in the end, there is still a valuable lesson learned as Scrooge simultaneously achieves redemptive virtue and—surprise—genuine joy. This motivates him to deploy his great wealth by bringing to others laid low by tragedy, sorrow, and pain, much as Jesus himself would have urged him to do.
It’s a lesson that today’s crooked bankers and more crooked politicians should take to heart. They can begin by redistributing their own great wealth to the needy rather than helping themselves to ours to do the same while calling it virtue.
But let’s end this discussion on a positive note. We’ll visit Scrooge not in his darkest hour, but just moments after he’s found his Christmas bliss.
3. “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). While we could go on and on about this wonderful film, we encourage you to peruse our colleague John Haydon’s entertaining and informative article, which lists his Top 10 reasons for this film’s absolute wonderfulness.
This film’s all-American optimism in the face of disaster and temptation, its good-heartedness in opposition to instinctive greed, and its surprising grittiness—a balance against too much sentimentality—combine to make “Wonderful Life” a contender in any Top 5 or Top 10 Christmas film list.
Trivia buffs: as depicted in the adjacent and somewhat fuzzy still, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are dancing on top of a swimming pool cover that is soon to be surreptitiously opened by a dastardly young man who happens to be a rival for Donna’s hand. Who is that nasty guy?
Before we give you the answer, why not take a look at the closing moments of this uplifting film. Be sure you view the clip before you peek at the answer to our mini-quiz.
Now the film’s finale:
Our mystery villain/prankster? You didn’t recognize Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, former chief crooner and heartthrob in many “Little Rascals” shorts in the 1930s? Yep, that’s him.
2. “Rare Exports.” (2010) We somehow discovered this Finnish film on Netflix last Christmas and were absolutely blown away by its originality and dark hilarity. It’s completely different from anything on our list and resembles no other Christmas-themed film you might ever chance to see, including that nasty, sacrilegious 1984 mad slasher classic, “Silent Night, Deadly Night.”
“Rare Exports” is dark and spooky, reflecting in many ways the peculiarly introspective and somber inscapes characteristic of many Finnish films. But this film is amply redeemed as a modern holiday classic due to its self-deprecating humor, sly innuendo, and outright hilarious satire on Christmas commercialism.
This Aki Kaurismaki-directed film is brightened by its weird, gawky, highly intelligent young hero, an 8-year-old named Pietari Kontio. He and his widowed dad Rauno live somewhere in Finland’s frigid northern region close to that country’s border with Russia.
Pietari and a young friend notice a substantial, American-led drilling operation nearby and decide to investigate. It looks like the Yanks are tunneling into a large hill that looks weirdly like a very large and ancient indigenous burial mound.
Not long after this expedition, kids start to disappear from Pietari’s remote town. As kids disappear, strange talismans resembling voodoo dolls are left in their stead.
Making matters worse, the village reindeer herd—the town’s main source of protein during its harsh winters—are also being slaughtered and devoured by…something.
What we have here is a variation on a peculiarly Finnish version of the legend of Father Christmas who seems the very antithesis of either Old St. Nick or the American Santa Claus. Asserting his 2nd Amendment rights, Pietari, and eventually his dad and the villagers start packing iron.
We won’t give the rest away.
This film is spooky, scary, beautiful, atmospheric, occasionally gory, but—if you get into it—really funny as well, a strange combination of terror and laughter all strung together by a surprisingly compelling mystery plot. A few short scenes might be a little rough for little kids in front of the TV. But in the main, this is an easy, just-short-of-PG13 film the whole family can actually enjoy together and one which boys Pietari’s age and a bit older will seriously get into.
Check out the trailer below:
1. “A Christmas Story.” (1983) Although this writer originally hails from Cleveland and attended high school not far from one of the locations where this cult classic was filmed, he only first caught this film on TV by chance, about five years ago or thereabouts. It’s definitely earned our top spot in this year’s list.
“A Christmas Story” is based on a number of short and semi-biographical works of fiction by writer Jean Shepherd, with material derived mainly from his book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.” Set in the 1940s but with sets looking like the 1950s, is a surprisingly accurate depiction of the Way We Were back in the day. That’s part of its enduring charm.
The film’s footage was shot in a variety of locations. The famous Parker family house and select outdoor environs were filmed in the funky, ethnic West Side Cleveland neighborhood of Tremont, a decidedly working class neighborhood in the ‘40s and ‘50s, perched precariously on the edge of the Cleveland’s industrialized Cuyahoga Valley.
Some scenes, including those at school and in the schoolyard were filmed farther north in St. Catherine, Ontario, while the rest, including house interiors, were filmed on a soundstage.
As the film opens, we’re introduced to the Parker family, all of whom are completely normal and totally eccentric. Our young hero, the bespectacled Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) resides with his dad (Darren McGavin in perhaps the finest role of his life), his mom (Melinda Dillon) and his pain-in-the-tush kid brother, Randy.
Ralphie’s fondest Christmas wish is for Santa to bring him a fabulous Red Ryder B.B. gun, though mom is opposed for the usual reason, namely that he’s likely to “put out his eye.”
Key scenes in this film have become cult classics, including the Old Man’s grouchy behavior; double- and triple-dog dares; Ralphie’s frequent, exciting, but imaginary adventures; and, finally, that fantastic, world-famous Leg Lamp (pictured at top) dad gets as a sales prize.
Some criticize the voiceover narration in this film. It’s performed by author Jean Shepherd himself in the guise of the adult Ralphie. But the narration, at least for this writer, never gets tedious.
Better, it gets to the essence of what it felt like in those days to be an imaginative, intelligent young kid with a sense of adventure—one that always beckoned from beyond that dreary valley below, promising a world where the good guys would always triumph, where the bad guys would always go down to defeat, and where the American Dream could always be achieved.
We tried to find a good clip from the film. But all the short YouTube videos are festooned with dull, opportunistic ads and watermarks that obscure the footage. Rather than annoy you with these, here’s a clip of people visiting the “Christmas Story” house in Cleveland. It’s now an enormously popular museum.
Let’s promise ourselves we’ll watch at least one of our favorite Christmas films while indulging in loads of real or imagined holiday nostalgia on Christmas Day. Let’s all wish each other a Merry Christmas. And may God bless us, everyone.
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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