Ho, Ho, Hollywood

My four top Christmas movies.

By Mary Beth Crain

One of the things I most look forward to at the holiday season is settling down with a big bowl of chips, salsa and kosher pickles and watching my favorite Christmas movies. It’s become a real tradition to visit with old Scrooge and the other characters we’ve all grown to love through the years and relive, yet again, their trials, tribulations and transformations.

You can check your local TV listings for showings of my four top Christmas flicks. And regardless of whether you’ve seen them a dozen times, or have never seen them, here are some tidbits, trivia and personal commentary that might add some extra meaning to your viewing.

1. A Christmas Carol (1951)

Actually, even though it’s considered the gold standard for screen adaptations of the Dickens classic, the 1951 version of “A Christmas Carol” is no longer, it seems, being shown on TV, so you’ll have to go to Netflix. Presumably it’s a rights issue; while TCM used to feature it at the holidays, they’re now only showing the 1938 version from their vaults, and I haven’t seen it on any of the other stations in at least five years. A pity, because the great Scottish/British actor Alastair Sim gives us a Scrooge who’d probably be a revelation to Dickens himself.

Sim’s Scrooge is curmudgeonly in a deadly quiet sort of way, resisting the temptation to overdo the growls and snarls of the meanest man in the world, and opting instead for a subtle cruelty that’s even more chilling. Of course, underneath all the cold-heartedness is a little boy crying out for love, and as Scrooge thaws out, he becomes so vulnerable and tender that you melt along with him. The scene where he wakes up on Christmas morning a changed man is absolutely astounding, with the tall, dignified Sim prancing wildly about in his nightshirt, scaring the life out of everybody as he goes stark, raving sane for the first time in his life.

The score is beautiful, the ensemble cast of famous Brit character actors superb, and the screenplay comes closest of all the many film versions to the original story. By the way, one of my friends in Santa Barbara was a woman named Jackie Langley. When we were discussing old movies one day and I mentioned how much I loved the 1951 “Christmas Carol,” she replied, “Oh, yes. My father wrote the screenplay, you know.” Knock me over with a feather! Her dad was indeed screenwriter Noel Langley, and she remembered Alastair Sim and many of the other actors coming over to her house when she was a little girl.

As for the 1938 “A Christmas Carol,” it’s cornier and cuts too many corners. But even though Reginald Owen hams it up as Scrooge, and you can actually see the line where his bald wig starts, it does feature the wonderful Gene Lockhart as Bob Cratchit, his wife Kathleen Lockhart as Mrs. Cratchit, and little June Lockhart—Lassie’s mom!—as one of the kids. Worth a look.

2. The Bishop's Wife

This 1947 gem stars Cary Grant as the genial angel who goes by the name of Dudley and comes to earth to help arrogant Episcopalian bishop David Niven learn the true meaning of Christmas. Along the way, Dudley falls in love with Niven’s almost-but-not-quite-nauseatingly perfect wife, the breathtakingly beautiful Loretta Young, and suffers the pain of a celestial spirit longing to be mortal.

“The Bishop’s Wife” is a seamless combination of charm and sentimentality, held together by Grant’s irresistible persona. Nobody but Niven knows that Dudley is an angel—every time the bishop tries to spill the beans, something extra-terrestrial happens to foil him—and Cary has a field day driving the cranky cleric crazy as he purifies his wayward soul, which has come to value wealth and prestige over the simple message of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

3. A Holiday Affair

TCM has resurrected this delightful little 1949 tale of a man and woman who find true love in the most unlikely place. It’s worth it just to see the adorable Janet Leigh at 22, giving a genuinely touching performance as a young war widow with a little boy, who takes an odious job as an undercover comparison shopper to make ends meet at Christmas time, and manages to get department store clerk Robert Mitchum fired for not turning her in. Oh well. Mitchum, a plain-speaking drifter who dreams of building boats in California as he sits in freezing Central Park, having coffee with the squirrels, promptly decides that Leigh is the girl for him, even though she’s engaged to nice, well-heeled and thoroughly decent Wendell Corey. This makes for some awkward moments, you can bet. But thanks to Leigh’s six-year-old-son with the irresistible jack-o-lantern grin—all he wants for Christmas is his eight front teeth—Mitchum wins out and all’s well that ends well.

What I love about this movie is its unpretentiousness. It’s one of those stalwart RKO low budget deals that relies on characters and situations over fancy trimmings to win its audience. It’s about the tough reality so many young mothers faced in post-WWII America, forced to raise their children without the husband they lost, and trying desperately to strike a balance between keeping the memory of the dead alive and moving on to a new life. It’s about having to choose between security and passion, and having the courage to risk it all for real love. And it’s about respecting children, and listening to them, and realizing that trying to protect them from the truth isn’t always the wisest, or safest, course for anyone.

And last, but not least…

4. A Christmas Story

Ralphie wants a Red Ryder BB gun more than anything in the world, but as every adult on the planet warns him, “You’ll put your eye out, kid!” Heck—he’d give his eye for a Red Ryder! Wily, bespectacled little Peter Billingsley may never have done anything else of note in the acting world, but he earned his place in screen history with his endearing portrayal of the 11-year-old boy who battles everything from evil schoolyard bullies to evil Santas and their bullying elves one memorable Christmas, when the neighbor’s hounds eat the turkey, his mom destroys his dad’s treasured leg lamp, and everybody ends up at the local Chinese restaurant for Christmas dinner, complete with egg foo young and waiters singing “fa ra ra ra ra.” After around a million viewings, it’s still a howl.

Merry Christmas, everybody!


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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was Bad Dream Girls.

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