Christmas Specials

It’s December and despite the fact that stores hang their Christmas decorations on the day after Hallowe’en, we can finally talk about the holiday season.

Let’s face it: Christmas belongs to kids.  As we get older and the responsibilities of life leave you feeling blue and mundane, you probably realize that your Yuletide memories are in your childhood.  Maybe your fondest memories include:

  • Decorating the Christmas trees, and all those Christmas presents under it;
  • Singing Christmas carols in the gym in grade school;
  • Going to high school the day before Christmas holidays, knowing that half the kids will skip anyway (or did you skip);
  • Toboganning, skiing, or snow fights during the two-week Christmas break; or
  • Opening presents Christmas morning

But don’t forget the fondest of holiday memories, the Christmas tv specials.  Long before Netflix and the internet, you’d have to watch the specials when they were scheduled on tv, adding to the specialness of the experience.  The tv station would play the promos a week in advance, so you’d spend the week in anticipation.  When it finally aired, you’d cram in the tv room, everybody fighting for a spot on the couch.  Here’s a compilation of the best tv specials and movies that play every year.

A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS

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Naturally, this comes at the top of the list.  Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a rallying cry against the commercialization of the holiday season, even though it was initially sponsored by the Coca Cola Company.  The animated special is an exercise in narrative restraint: it has a 25-minute running length, focuses on a tightly told narrative arc, and has a clear-cut moralistic message.

Charlie Brown is depressed: His sister asks Santa for money, his dog enters a tree-decorating contest for a prize, and kids don’t understand Christmas.  When his antagonist friend Lucy invites him to direct the Nativity play, he’s initially excited but becomes frustrated when can’t find the right spirit.  He chooses a sad-looking Christmas tree to decorate the stage, and the kids mock him.  After Linus cites a biblical quotation about Jesus’ birth, Charlie leaves, and the kids fix up his tree, finding Christmas spirit while singing “Hark the Herald Angels.”

Yet it’s the uneven quality of the production that creates the amazing atmosphere, including the poor animation and clipped dialogue of the untrained kid actors (some were too young to read, so they had to repeat lines spoken to them, hence the choppiness).  But the icing on the cake is Vince Guaraldi’s jazz-infused score.  Nobody had ever used jazz of that quality for a kids’ show, and it had the effect of treating the kids as intelligent.

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas

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I’ll never forgive the people who thought it would be a good idea to turn this beloved Dr. Seuss tale into a feature-length Jim Carey movie, because like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas‘s shortness–26 minutes–is a great thing.

Based on Dr. Seuss’ children’s story, the titular character, whose heart is “two sizes too small,” detests his neighbours, the Whos of Whoville.  He lives alone, apart from his loyal dog, Max, whom he uses in his diabolical scheme to end Christmas.  Christmas, it seems, is when he is most miserable, because the kids will “…rush for their toys, and the noise, noise, noise!” and “Roast beef is a feast I can’t stand in the least!”  Dressing up as Santa Claus, he travels to Whoville to steal all the presents and decorations, in hopes of stopping Christmas.  Sleighing back to his home on Mt. Crumpit, he hears the Whos come out and sing Christmas carols, causing his heart “…to grow three sizes that day.”  He returns to Whoville, rejoices with the Whos, and “He, the Grinch, served the roast beast himself.”

Apart from the amazing quotes, which come directly from the Dr. Seuss book, a lot of elements work well for this masterpiece, including the choice of Boris Karloff as narrator and the Grinch’s voice.  Karloff, perhaps most famous for playing Universal’s Frankenstein’s Monster in the ’30s, was in his 70s when he voiced the Grinch.  His rich baritone voice and English accent created the right atmosphere.  But most importantly, the songs were memorable, especially “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” sung by Thuri Ravenscroft (the voice of Tony the Tiger).  Who doesn’t sing it every Christmas?

It’s a Wonderful Life

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Many people argue that It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t a Christmas movie, since so little of the movie’s running time is set during Christmas.  Yet try watching the movie in July.  Exactly.  It wouldn’t be the same thing.

The movie’s plot needs no introduction: Clarence, a dim-witted angel, must save the life of hapless George Bailey, who’s contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve.  Clarence watches George’s life: as a kid, George saves his younger brother from drowning; as an adolescent he prevents drunk pharmacist Mr. Gower from putting poison in a kid’s prescription; as an adult he takes over his father’s building and loan business.  George sacrifices his ambitions of college and word travel, but he builds new homes for people, helping them escape the slums of Mr. Potter.  But when $8 000 goes missing from the business, George, fearing arrest, becomes suicidal.  Clarence intervenes by showing George how much poorer people would be if George never existed.  With a new resolve for life, George rushes back to his family, only to find the town congregated in his living room, having raised the missing money.  George’s war-hero brother, who fought through a blizzard to get home, raises a toast: “To my big brother, George, the richest man in town!” A bell rings–Clarence earned his wings–and everybody sings “Auld Lang Syne.”

Sure, the movie’s end is complete syrupy cornball, but very few people can resist that last scene.  It’s a Wonderful Life actually lost money on its initial release, eventually causing director/producer Frank Capra to close his production company. The producers let the movie’s copyright lapse, allowing the movie to endlessly play on PBS, where audiences rediscovered it.  Some interesting trivia about It’s a Wonderful Life: the scene where George Bailey runs through the snow was actually shot during a summer heat wave; of the two surviving sets, the underground pool that George and Mary fall into during the dance is still in operation at a Beverly Hills high school and is currently under renovations; and Jim Henson claimed in interviews that it was a coincidence that his roommate Muppets, Bert and Ernie, shared the first names with the movie’s cop and cab driver friends.  But beyond the trivia, the nearly seventy-year-old classic remains a holiday classic because of its simple, endearing message; its dark atmosphere; and sentimental ending.  But fans of It’s a Wonderful Life should watch Meet John Doe, a much darker Frank Capra movie in which a hobo attempts suicide on Christmas Eve.

Scrooge

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Filmmakers love Charles Dickens because he’s out of copyright, so it’s no surprise that his most-famous holiday story, A Christmas Carol, has been adapted on both the large and small screen countless times.  It’s a great source and an atmospheric story, but the dozens of adaptations are a mixed baggage: some are all right, some are forgettable, some star Muppets, and some are creepy (sorry, but the digitally animated Jim Carrey version IS disturbing).  But only one adaptation is stellar: the 1951 version, starring Alastair Sim.  Sim’s portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge is so career defining that many people may not realize that Sim’s acting career spanned forty-five years and fifty movies (check out his Ealing comedies).

The story, you know: Ebenezer Scrooge is a loner, a miser, and a misanthrope who despises the Christmas season, viewing it as a needless distraction from making money and earning a living.  Scrooge–and this is what most people miss–is a pained soul who would rather avoid human contact than be hurt again.  He abuses his sole employee, refuses to donate to charity, and failed to mourn his one true friend’s (and business partner) death.  When that one true friend, Jacob Marley, appears to Scrooge in the form of a spirit and offers a chance to save Scrooge’s already-damned soul, Scrooge is taken on a journey by the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.  We see the impact of both Scrooge’s childhood on Scrooge and Scrooge’s impact on other people, notably his employee, Bob Cratchit, and his nephew.  By Christmas morning, Scrooge sees the value of connecting with people, helps the sick child Tiny Tim, and joins his nephew for Christmas dinner.

It’s a touching and moving story, but the movie stands out for many reasons, not the least of which is the acting, particularly Alastair Sim in the leading role.  Sim had a naturally expressionistic face and looked far older than he was (he was 51 when the movie was released).  His theatre background gave him great facial expressions (every actor portraying Scrooge since Sim merely mimics him).  But Sim was joined by great company.  Who can forget Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley’s ghost?  The scene in which he visits Scrooge is eerily chilly: he sits on the seat next to Scrooge and screams that haunting scream.  “Mankind!  Mankind was my business!”  Or when he opens Scrooge’s window and appears on the cold, snowy ground outside with dozens of other spirits in chains as they attempt to save a homeless woman and her starving children.  The black-and-white cinematography is haunting, spooky, and scary, and adds to the moralistic lesson of Scrooge. 

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