Christmas Films: Seven of the Best

It's a Wonderful Life 5

There is romance from Budapest to Bedford Falls, explosive Los Angeles action, and a little match girl who hallucinates in the hiatus between Denmark and France in Culturedarm’s collection of the seven best Christmas films. Incontrovertible classics star alongside several lesser known works, while two animated offerings show something of Christmas traditions in Scandinavia and the United States. Yours might be just fine, but my Christmas would not be complete without them.

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The Shop Around the Corner

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When we think of the people behind Hollywood’s Golden Age not in terms of the studio system and its stars, but with regard for its directors, some of the famous names that stir to mind are Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, George Cukor, John Ford, John Huston, and Orson Welles. But the essence of Hollywood’s Golden Age is the light romantic comedy, and its master was Ernst Lubitsch. After he died of a heart attack in 1947, at the age of fifty-five, Wilder hung a motto on the wall opposite his own desk, asking in gilded letters ‘How would Lubitsch do it?’

Graced with ‘The Lubitsch Touch’, his works are models of nuanced characterisation, witty dialogue, and suggestive sexuality, in which gender roles are teased and the strictures of society subject to a comic perspective both doleful and buoyantly fun. The Shop Around the Corner was Lubitsch’s favourite of his own works. Written by Samson Raphaelson, it was based on a 1937 Hungarian play by Miklos Laszlo, entitled Illatszertar, or Parfumerie. The conceit would later be used for In the Good Old Summertime and You’ve got Mail. In the run-up to Christmas, Klara Novak, played by Margaret Sullavan, and Alfred Kralik, played by James Stewart, maintain a quarrelsome working relationship at a small leather goods store, not realising that they are the subjects of each other’s amorous correspondence, surreptitiously falling in love by anyonymous mail.

At the beginning of 1940 Stewart was still in the process of establishing his acting career, and Sullavan had already been pivotal. The pair had first become acquainted at the beginning of the 1930s, in the waning days of Sullavan’s brief marriage to Henry Fonda. Sullavan had seen Stewart on the stage and predicted big things, and in 1936, when he was newly arrived in Hollywood with just two bit-part MGM film roles to his name, she campaigned for him to be her leading man in Next Time We Love. They partnered again in 1938 for The Shopworn Angel.

In the same year Stewart starred as Jean Arthur’s love interest in You Can’t Take It With You, his first film under the direction of Frank Capra, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. And in 1939 he, Arthur, and Capra worked together once more for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, while in Destry Rides Again, opposite Marlene Dietrich, Stewart made his first foray into the Western. He was still being billed behind his female leads. His career took another upturn when, later in 1940, he appeared alongside Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, winning the year’s Academy Award for Best Actor.

Beyond the back and forth repartee – and a carefully woven subplot involving store owner Mr. Matuschek and the young delivery boy Pepi – Stewart is the tender centre of The Shop Around The Corner, but it is Sullavan who provides the spark. Pauline Kael summed the picture up when she called it:

‘Close to perfection – one of the most beautifully acted and paced romantic comedies ever made in this country. It is set in the enclosed world of the people who work together in a small department store; Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart are the employees who bicker with each other, and in no other movie has this kind of love-hate been made so convincing.’

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It’s a Wonderful Life

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It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t a success upon its release in the days leading up to the Christmas of 1946, failing to break even at the box office, and consolidating Frank Capra’s reputation as a director whose best work was behind him: It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington distant pre-war memories for audiences who increasingly demanded less idealistic, more hard-hitting fare. Of course today it is regarded as the quintessential Christmas picture. And aside from its seasonal pride of place, it is routinely listed among the greatest films of all time, while Capra and James Stewart, the picture’s star, both clung to it as the favourite of all their movies.

Expressing his fondness for It’s a Wonderful Life, Stewart would cite a particular scene. When crisis comes to the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan on Christmas Eve, George Bailey staggers about in the snow, before finding a bar and drinking. Suicide is already in his thoughts, but in a lucid moment he murmurs a prayer. The beauty and the pathos of the scene isn’t bound up in religion. This is a man of principle, a Romantic at heart who has found himself compelled, partly owing to his nature but largely through force of circumstance, to forego his Romanticism for something more staid, and now it seems that even his principles, together with all of his hopes and ideals, will not prove nearly enough. His prayer is the last vestige of himself, thrown out into four walls of the universe.

If you’ve never seen or only half seen It’s a Wonderful Life, or if the full flurry of the picture is little more than a hazy childhood recollection, lay aside any suppositions. This isn’t Jimmy Stewart the stuttering bumpkin, diffident almost to a fault, but with a winning charm and a heart of gold, a caricature which he rarely acted out, instead producing some of the most psychologically damaged performances in all of cinema; and It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t all communal spirit and ‘Auld Lang Syne’. George Bailey from the outset possesses a sharp and mocking sense of humour, vanity and selfishness and carelessness are in no short supply among his friends, and the frustration of his youthful plans has endowed him with a real bitterness that culminates, late in the film, in a verbal tirade against his family.

Earlier when he and Mary – his future wife, played with depth and eloquence by Donna Reed – realise their love for each another, it is a moment of resignation and despair, the climax of a decidedly peculiar romance which has seen him push her away while fending off her numerous suitors. And his prayer in the bar has barely been uttered before he is punched in the face by an agitated fellow patron. ‘That’s what I get for praying’, he splutters, his mouth bloody and his mind made up. And still It’s a Wonderful Life reaches the pinnacle of art for its powers of empathy, for forcing us to look and to feel – at any time, but especially at Christmas – outside the confines of ourselves.

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The Apartment

In some ways Jack Lemmon was James Stewart’s heir. Together they are the everyman of American cinema, two actors who we rarely look up to in awe because – despite the breadth and the complexity of their roles – they are somehow always so comfortable to spend time with, so sympathetic to the moods and hesitations of our lives. Vertigo came out in 1958, with Alfred Hitchcock attributing its lack of commercial success to Stewart showing his age (he was about to turn fifty), while Some Like It Hot emerged in 1959, shooting Lemmon to stardom (although he had already achieved some success in 1955 with an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Mister Roberts). On screen both possess a surface energy, in Lemmon’s case neurotic, in Stewart’s related to his bumbling manner, that can sometimes seem like overacting; both upset the complacency about them with a restlessly probing eye; and in the end their tics barely disguise the the subtlety of their performances, the sincerity of their tone.

Like It’s a Wonderful Life, Wilder’s The Apartment is a Christmas movie not all that merry. Calvin Clifford ‘Bud’ Baxter is not a bad man, but he begins the film as a servile careerist, who only begins to reflect more deeply on his complicity in a string of extramarital affairs when, at the office Christmas party, a cracked compact mirror disturbs his facile exuberance, symbolised by the upward curve of his Junior Executive bowler hat. He realises that Fran Kubelik, the elevator operator to whom he has devoted all of his romantic interest, is caught up in a relationship with his boss.

In the fallout to Fran’s fling with Sheldrake, like George Bailey, Bud Baxter winds up punched in the face, and the spectre of suicide becomes real and continues to linger. The pivotal action takes place between Christmas Eve and New Year, so it is curious that The Apartment tends to be neglected from lists of Christmas classics. Perhaps this owes something to its release in the summer of 1960; perhaps to its superbly stylish cool jazz score, by Adolph Deutsch; and certainly The Apartment eschews the convention of a cosy yuletide family. But it is a masterpiece, and reminds us that fresh starts must neither demand nor hope to receive a fresh calendar.

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Die Hard

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The debate around what constitutes a Christmas film never seems to rage so fierce as it does when it comes to Die Hard. Like The Apartment, it received its release at the height of summer, in July 1988, and proved a big success. But witness the Christmas tree in the lobby of the Nakatomi Plaza, the Santa hat and the ‘Now I Have A Machinegun Ho-Ho-Ho’ that John McClane displays to indicate his first kill, and the score featuring ‘Christmas in Hollis’, ‘Fill Your Hearts with Joy and Gladness’, and ‘Let It Snow’. Indeed the action of the movie resides in a Christmas party gone wrong, a group of thieves masquerading as terrorists who take advantage of a seasonal gathering to wreak their distress. There might be no snow or shuffling of sleigh bells, but those who think Christmas films require a certain sentiment need only return to The Apartment or the assorted acerbic moments of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Die Hard possesses a questionable politics, with its German and Eastern European villains, disposable Japanese corporate boss, and the irony of a black cop – long troubled and stuck behind a desk because he mistakenly killed a thirteen year old boy – gaining redemption by relearning how to shoot his gun. But it’s all in good fun after all: the bad guys are faintly ridiculous, surely the models for the nihilists in The Big Lebowski; and Willis in his rugged white vest makes the stakes more primal than political.

Die Hard was based on Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, the sequel to 1966’s The Detective, which had been adapted in 1968 into a film of the same name starring Frank Sinatra. In the early stages of the project, 20th Century Fox were contractually obliged to offer the lead role in Die Hard to Sinatra, but he turned the part down. He had only appeared in two pictures since 1970, and in his early seventies was too old and too self aware to star in an action flick. But it is entertaining to imagine an alternate reality where Sinatra plays a slower paced McClane with added festive glitz. Die Hard 2 followed in 1990, again set on Christmas Eve, and there the winter does play its part courtesy of a memorable snowmobile chase.

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The Little Match Girl

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If It’s a Wonderful Life and The Apartment struggle to hard-won happy endings, the little match girl has a much bleaker time of it in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. On a bitterly cold and snow-covered New Year’s Eve, a youngster struggles to sell matches in the street, unable to go home because she knows she will face the ire of her abusive father. She lights a flame in a futile effort to keep warm, and as hypothermia sets in, she begins to experience strange visions. Andersen envisioned her death at his story’s end as something upbeat, indicating her ascent to heaven to be with her grandmother, the only person in life who ever showed her love. But few modern readers might agree, and several retellings of the tale have offered a softer conclusion.

No such luck in Jean Renoir’s silent film of 1928, the director’s eighth work, preceding by a decade his trio of French talking classics Grand Illusion, The Human Beast, and The Rules of the Game. His innovative vision for The Little Match Girl is a poetic danse macabre, with Catherine Hessling haunting in the title role. Featuring a toy store that springs to life and the ineluctable charge of death in a battle up in the clouds, the symbolic white roses which flower over the match girl’s gravesite are restored to mundanity by the scornful eyes of this world’s onlookers.

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Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul

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On 19 December 1958 in the United States, Walt Disney presented From All of Us to All of You, combining new animations with clips from vintage shorts and feature films, in a Christmas special hosted by Jiminy Cricket, Mickey Mouse, and Tinker Bell. The special has shown intermittently in America since, but starting the following year, it became a fixture of schedules across Scandinavia.

In Sweden it is a cherished tradition, broadcast under the title Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul (‘Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas‘) at 3 pm during the celebrations each Christmas Eve, and attaining a viewership routinely in excess of 3.5 million – making Kalle Anka annually one of the country’s two or three most watched shows. Donald Duck is a popular figure in Sweden, lending his name to a prominent joke party that in the general election of 1991 achieved as many as 1,535 votes.

The original narrator Beng Feldreich – dubbing the voice of Jiminy Cricket – remains the host, and while the special that shows today is extended to afford a smattering of contemporary clips, the core of Kalle Anka stays resolutely the same. Shorts include Santa’s Workshop, Clown of the Jungle, Pluto’s Christmas Tree, Mickey’s Trailer, and Ferdinand the Bull, while clips are shown from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, and Robin Hood. Even without its place at the hearth of the Swedish Christmas, Kalle Anka is an enjoyable depiction of the early styles and rhythms of Disney.

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A Charlie Brown Christmas

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Producer Lee Mendelson had originally conceived a documentary on the success of Peanuts, but when Coca-Cola asked for a Christmas special, he and the comic strip’s creator Charles M. Schulz devised an outline in less than a day, consisting of ‘winter scenes, a school play, a scene to be read from the Bible, and a sound track combining jazz and traditional music’.

From the elegant ice skating opening animation and the first bars of the children’s choir singing ‘Christmas Time Is Here’, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a delight. However one might interpret or evaluate its message in the abstract, the real experience of watching Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, and Snoopy is one of the most peaceful and reflective of the season. First airing on 9 December 1965, and watched by 45% of the television audience, 2015 marked the special’s 50th anniversary.