What makes a movie a Christmas movie? If you work for the Hallmark Corporation, or are a fan of the Hallmark Corporation, it would be any movie that involves Christmas and stars an actor or actress you dimly remember from an old TV show. In the movie, the actor or actress portrays a down home type who somehow finds love. Or healing! There's always a buttload of healing going on around the holidays.
Then there are your holiday movie sub-genres. Like Santa-based comedies. These usually involve Tim Allen or Chevy Chase and tend to involve a reaffirmation of someone’s sense of family and/or wonder. Except Bad Santa. That movie has no real message and is close to perfect.
A looser definition of Christmas movie allows any movie set during the Christmas season. Home Alone (sense of family), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (sense of family and a pinch of healing) and also classics like Bell, Book and Candle (sense of Kim Novak), On Her Majesty Secret Service (sense of Bond, James Bond) and Batman Returns (sense of Danny Devito drooling ink and spitting up fish). I would also include any movie set largely in the snow as it makes you feel Christmassy. Movies like Alive! Or John Carpenter’s The Thing. Talk about a surprise under the tree!
Then there are the classics like Miracle on 34th St. and It’s A Wonderful Life. The mere mention of Its A Wonderful Life brings a warm glow to the heart of anyone who has ever been near a television set on Christmas. But behind all the warm fuzzy feelings lurks the movie’s plot, ready to rear its head and ruin your fun. The TV Guide blurb for It’s A Wonderful Life could accurately read, “A man has a setback and suffers prolonged, detailed suicidal ideation.” Merrrrry Christmas! It’s a Wonderful Life has the same plot as an emo kid’s revenge fantasy. ”I’m gonna die and then you’ll be sorry! And even though I’m dead, I’ll still get to watch you be sorry!” How has Morrissey not referenced it yet?
The plot of It’s A Wonderful Life serves the same purpose as Mickey Rooney’s appearance in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. It’s there to jar you out of the film you remember loving, even if you can’t recall the details. Then you watch it and find yourself screaming “Jesus Christ!” at the TV screen.
Don’t get me wrong, It’s A Wonderful Life IS a brilliant movie. With that in mind, it won’t surprise you to learn it was a critical and box office bomb when it first came out. Like so many great movies, it was ahead of its time. We could do a whole series of stories about those movies (and don’t think we won’t)!
Speaking of dark Christmas stories, is there anything darker than Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer? It might take place at the North Pole, but it could be set in the deep south during reconstruction as far as the attitudes of some of its main characters are concerned. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer is a story of tolerance. Much in the same way Mississippi Burning is a story of tolerance. Again, like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, when you watch it through the lens of adulthood and with a modern eye, and it leaves you aghast. Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer plays like a stop motion fever dream.
Among the highlights: Santa Claus visits Rudolph’s father, the reindeer Donner. St. Nick strides into Donner's home, takes a look at his baby and starts berating him - berating him! - because his son has a physical abnormality. Okey doke! Then the coach of the reindeer games kicks Rudolph out of practice for the same reason. The teleplay was written by a guy named Romeo Muller. Whether or not he had issues with bullying remains a mystery.
After Rudolph and his friend Hermie are literally chased out of town (for being different!), they end up at the The Island Of Misfit Toys, which is a Gulag for those who fail to adhere to Christmas Town’s idea of what's normal. The Twilight Zone has several episodes along these lines, most notably, Number Twelve Looks Just Like You. At the end of the story, Santa Claus comes back to Rudolph and apologizes. As an olive branch, he invites Rudolph to take the lead position on a suicide mission. He should have asked Jimmy Stewart.
And then there is my favorite, Santa Claus Versus The Devil. Also known as just Santa Claus. Not to be confused with the Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause. Santa Claus Versus The Devil was made in very Catholic Mexico in 1959. It’s gorgeous to look at. Big, bright, beautiful Technicolor images fill the screen. It’s a great movie to have on with the sound off. Unless you’re interested in the, uh, “story.” In this film, Santa Claus is pitted against his mortal enemy, The Devil. Now, I know it’s confusing, because you’d think the devil would be God’s mortal enemy, not Santa. Going after Santa Claus kind of feels like punching down. Then again, the devil would do that.
In the story, the devil wants to turn the children of the world against Santa so he assigns one of Hell’s demons, Pitch, to handle the task. Pitch looks exactly like a child’s depiction of the Devil: a red face, red long john’s with horns and a long, forked tail. One does wonders why, if Hell is a cave full of fire, why is everyone wearing long johns. We meet Santa Claus at his workshop in… outer space! Why not the North Pole, you ask? Oh, THAT'S what took you out of the story H?e sings a song about the children of the world. The children of the world are depicted in ways that, even for 1959, seem a tad... unenlightened? The kids from America are dressed as cowboys and the kids from Africa aren’t dressed at all. Okay!
You have to see the movie to believe it, but I will leave you with my favorite scene. Pitch sneaks into a little girl’s bedroom and, invisible to her parents, lurks over her while she sleeps. He gives her a nightmare where she wanders through a fog-shrouded room where women wearing painted, burlap, doll-face masks dance about creepily. One tells the young girl.. “If you want a doll, you have to be evil!”
Merry Christmas kids.
Now, the Santa from Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer Versus The Devil? That's a battle.