Since the advent of video, my friends and I have gathered in an annual endurance test of holiday cheer. We have thrown Christmas Movie Marathons.
After raiding a video store or two, we sit back for 24 hours or so, basking in the season. Some people may want to split their viewing over several weeknights or even a few weekends, but those who manage to sit straight through everything will find it a wonderful sensation. As the films flicker by, the marathoner may feel his or her heart grow to two or three times its normal size.
First, there are the television specials (yeah, I know I said movie marathon but Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without a few of these TV classics now available on video. Try shuffling them up and watching them between the real movies).
This year, several specials directed by the inimitable team of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass have been released for sale and rental. “The Little Drummer Boy” is a charming little piece that may remind one of the sometimes forgotten role played at Christmas by the baby Jesus.
And what would the holidays be without “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”? This Rankin and Bass tale is narrated by a Burl Ives snowman and features many holiday tunes. Such fun characters as prospecting Yukon Cornelius and a bouncing Abominable Snowman highlight this tale of misfits in search of purpose.
Rankin and Bass’ “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” finds Fred Astaire narrating the story of Santa, letting us know just who he is and how he came to be. More toe-tapping tunes and endearing characters lace this favorite. (Incidentally, if Hollywood is listening, “The Year Without a Santa Claus,” the rarely-televised story about the year when Santa couldn’t deliver toys because of the worst blizzard in history, should be released on video. The singing and dancing Heat Miser is sorely missed.)
“A Very Merry Cricket” is a wonderful animated special written and directed by Chuck Jones of Looney Tunes fame. It tells the tale of a cricket who brings Times Square to a halt with his Christmas caroling. Jones’ best-known directorial effort is the quintessential Christmas TV special, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” written by Dr. Suess and narrated by Boris Karloff. My group continually promises to save this one for the end of the marathon, as sort of its crowning glory, but none of us can ever wait that long to see it.
And, just as we need to see the Grinch carve the roast beast, we need to hear Linus’ soulful telling of the Christmas Story, and to watch Charlie Brown rescue a forgotten little Christmas tree, and to hear the Peanuts’ gang’s rendition of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” If you’ve only got one hour for Christmas viewing, Charlie Brown and the Grinch can fill it with decades worth of Christmas memories and cheer.
Onto the movies! John Hughes’ “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is a good starting point even though it is a Thanksgiving film. Steve Martin is trying to get home to spend the holiday with his family. The hazards of the road and John Candy get in his way, and make for an exceptional film loaded with laughs and laced with a human warmth that should bring a lump to the heartiest throat.
A good follow-up is “Miracle on 34th Street,” the version that stars Edmund Gwenn as the bearded gent who must convince a very young Natalie Wood--and a courtroom--that he truly is the real Santa. (Again, you should only invite people to your marathon who will not mind displays of emotion. Both movies listed so far, and most that follow, are guaranto teed tear-wellers).
For a change of a pace, you might want to add “The Nutcracker,” especially the lavish American Ballet Theatre production that features Mikhail Baryshnikov as both star and choreographer. The National Philharmonic’s spirited rendition of Tchaikovsky’s score rounds out this excellent choice.
If you wish to delve further down the fantasy path, try “March of the Wooden Soldiers.” This 1934 film with Laurel and Hardy is the original “Babes in Toyland” and is far superior to the Disney remake (with Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands) that most people rent unwittingly. Although this film includes some tunes that are far from exciting, Laurel and Hardy are great fun as the toy maker’s assistants who must save the storybook town.
“A Christmas Carol” is a must, but which version? I recommend the 1951 black-and-white one with Alastair Sim as Scrooge. It is well written and the acting is superb, on top of which you don’t have to listen to Albert Finney sing. And Dickens’ bleak world plays best in black and white, as a place of shadow and light. (You may want to consider before renting that this film is for sale at just slightly more than the rental fee. It makes an excellent addition to a home library and even comes in a specially priced gift package with the next film in our marathon: “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
For many people, this classic is at the top of the Christmas film list. If you have not yet enjoyed the tale of Jimmy Stewart taking a peek at what the world would have been like had he never been born, what are you waiting for?!? There is a colorized version, but avoid it like the plague.
Also in the black-and-white vein, “The Bishop’s Wife” stars Cary Grant as an angel who attempts to reconcile David Niven’s stagnating marriage by making moves on Niven’s wife. Both funny and touching, it’ll leave you smiling.
“The Bells of Saint Mary’s” is the exceptional sequel to the Academy Award-winning “Going My Way.” Bing Crosby, returning to his role as a modern-minded priest, finds himself at a parochial school butting heads with Ingrid Bergman’s Mother Superior. It’s a delightful film with many warm moments.
“Holiday Inn” finds Crosby and Fred Astaire singing, dancing and fighting over women. It also marks the first appearance of Irving Berlin’s classic “White Christmas” (later reprised in a film named after the song and again featuring Crosby, this time with sidekick Danny Kaye). If you’re a Bing fan, “Holiday Inn” is a must.
“Christmas in Connecticut” is a screwball comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck as a newspaper columnist whom people turn to for advice in family matters. The problem is that she’s not the Susie Homemaker type she pretends to be; she’s really tough and streetwise. For the sake of publicity (and her job), she has to find house and husband for the holiday season.
Out of the ‘40s and into the ‘80s with “Ernest Saves Christmas.” Yes, an Ernest film. I admit to being a fan, but even non-Ernest fans might love this one, a very funny story about Ernest’s efforts to help an old Santa pass on his gift-giving skills to an overweight children’s show host. Even though you may not entirely buy the borderline, maudlin runaway-girl subplot, this is still a film that should make you say, “Hey! It’s Christmas . . . and I like it!”
There’s more Christmas comedy from John Hughes in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” as Chevy Chase returns as Clark Griswald, the consummate family man trying to have a real family Christmas. Naturally, nothing goes right. From his harpy in-laws to the unexpected arrival of rural cousin Randy Quaid, Chevy’s Christmas takes one downward slide after another.
A true gem is “A Christmas Story,” with Peter Billingsley (better known as Messy Marvin) as a boy who wants a Red Ryder air gun for Christmas. He schemes diligently to get one, only to hear from everyone--including a department store Santa--that he’ll shoot his eye out. It’s a charming, nostalgic look at youth and a bygone era. Darren McGavin plays the boy’s father with a delightfully silly quality. If you haven’t saved the Grinch or “It’s a Wonderful Life” for last, you might want to consider “A Christmas Story” as the crown of your marathon.
A very funny version of the “Christmas Carol” tale is Richard Donner’s “Scrooged,” with Bill Murray as a practically soulless television executive who receives the ghostly visitations of Christmas Past, Present and Future. How can you not like a movie that proposes a television special entitled “The Night the Reindeer Died” complete with explosions and Lee Majors?
Finally, there’ll be a new addition to my group’s marathon this year: “Die Hard.” Yes, the Bruce Willis action flick about a lone New York cop up against a gang of ruthless, bloodthirsty burglars. Aside from the bullets and blood, you see, it’s a film about a man trying to win his family back. He’s come to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with them. Some people will argue for “Lethal Weapon” on the same grounds: It, too, takes place in the holiday season. Mel Gibson must learn to overcome the death of his wife, people get shot. . . .
One last note: for the truly warped, there is a film called “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” which finds Santa running around chopping people up with an ax. This one has the distinction of having had its ads pulled from television because they were scaring little children and it most likely will not be in my group’s marathon.