Rob Edelman: Holiday Fare
Looking for a few good films to enjoy during the holiday season? Well, it's easy to cite such traditional fare as A CHRISTMAS STORY, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, HOLIDAY INN, WHITE CHRISTMAS, CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT, and the various versions of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, among many others. But there are other films to be discovered and savored.
One newer title that I endlessly highlight dates from 2003. It is LOVE ACTUALLY, and my wife and I watch this delightful film each year. I also recommend it to my UAlbany students: all 420 of them this semester. LOVE ACTUALLY primarily is set in London during the holiday season, and it spotlights a diverse group of characters and how love in all its forms impacts their lives. Perhaps most importantly, LOVE ACTUALLY was released just a couple years after 9/11, and this is dealt with in a very humanistic way at the start of the film. And what I love about LOVE ACTUALLY is that this opening and its finale focus not on the actors and their characters but on everyday people: in other words, real people who are seen meeting and greeting each other in an airport. This is wonderful stuff...
As for other holiday fare, I’m compelled to cite the ever-popular IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE-- and this is for an extra-special reason. This 1946 classic endures not just because it is beautifully directed (by Frank Capra) and acted (by Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond, and Frank Faylen, among others). The key to IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is its putting forth the idea that, in our power-mad celebrity-obsessed culture, everyone matters. Even if you are unable to transcend your roots and realize your dreams, as is the case with George Bailey, the film’s main character, you still can live a wonderful and valuable life. (By the way, the characters played by Bond and Faylen are named Bert and Ernie. Any connection here to SESAME STREET?)
These days, the tune “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has become a holiday standard. However, how many know that it first was performed by Judy Garland in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, another classic holiday film? This one was released in 1944, at the height of World War II, and it offers a sweet portrait of what then was a bygone era: just past the turn of the 20th century, a time in which America was free of war. MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS also spotlights the joys of a happy family and, indeed, this season is a time in which we celebrate the idealized American family: what familial relationships could and should be and what it means to respect, support, and love a husband, wife, parent, child, or sibling.
In fact, scores of films are odes to the American family: not just MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS but LIFE WITH FATHER, I REMEMBER MAMA, OUR TOWN, THE HUMAN COMEDY, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, and so many others. Most do not focus on the holiday season. Still, they are among Hollywood’s most durable examples of Americana, and they are appropriate seasonal fare. Indeed, not all holiday films even have to be set in December. In Preston Sturges’ CHRISTMAS IN JULY, from 1940, Dick Powell plays a lowly office worker and compulsive contest enterer who daydreams about winning oodles of cash and wedding the boss’ secretary. One day, a trio of his fellow wage slaves concocts a phony telegram, informing him that he’s won a contest. The result is not only great fun but a commentary on materialism American-style and the true meaning of success and failure.
Now I must add here that, if you are searching for memorable films that spotlight other seasonal-- translate, non-Christmas-- holidays, well, it honestly is hard to come up with any. The reason is that Christmas so dominates our culture.
Finally, what about holiday films that are as fresh and tasty as a month-old Thanksgiving turkey? Well, my vote for the all-time worst holiday movie is SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS, a dreadful ultra-low-budget 1960s oddity in which Santa and a pair of kids are abducted to the Red Planet. Cast as Girmar, a Martian child, is none other than PiaZadora. Anyone out there remember PiaZadora?
Rob Edelman as written several books on film, television, and baseball, and was a longtime Contributing Editor of Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide. He teaches film history at the University at Albany.
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