Category Archives: Christmas Movies

The Greatest Christmas Film: The Bishop’s Wife

Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking.

Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry, a blazing star hung over a stable, and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries. We celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, with the sound of bells, and with gifts.

But especially with gifts. You give me a book, I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry can do with a new pipe. For we forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that.

Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shinning gifts that make peace on earth.

The story of Episcopalian Bishop and the problems he is having in trying to balance family, the normal pressures of his job, and the added pressure of trying to build a cathedral. In desperation he makes a prayer for help. Enter an angel named Dudley played by Cary Grant. Which is good because Dudley does want to help. It’s also bad because Dudley is a bit attracted to the Bishop’s Wife…and well if being an angel wasn’t enough, it’s an angel played by Cary Grant…how much do you want to bet it was not entirely platonic feelings on the side of the Bishop’s wife (not that she would even consider cheating on her husband, but even she observes that this “something wicked” in the time she spends with Dudley).

One of the Bishop’s other problems is the rather vicious rich old woman who has the money he needs to build the cathedral but is demanding unreasonable and selfish concessions for it. And they’re not subtle about how much we should dislike this woman. In one of the first scenes she is openly hostile to the Bishop’s dog…in movies as in real life, if you don’t like dogs you’re as evil as it gets (I understand if you’re not a dog person…but to openly dislike dogs is about as clear a sign as I can see that you don’t have a soul.) But put her in a room with an angel and even he can melt her hard heart. She is only one of the people whom Dudley’s company alone brings them back to faith and redemption.

But this is only one of a multitude of miracles that Dudley performs in the movie. (I really tried to find footage of him decorating a Christmas Tree in only a few seconds but it doesn’t seem to be up on YouTube…go watch the movie, it’s a nice scene and decent special effects for a 1947 movie). For all the headaches he gives our dear Bishop, he does his job and leaves when his role has been finished…although maybe not in the way expected.

But more than just being a feel good movie set at the time of Christmas with an angel, this movie is the greatest Christmas film for it’s last scene. I quoted above the sermon that Dudley wrote for the Bishop. It is short and simple. And it culminates in three simple sentences:

Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shinning gifts that make peace on earth.

I can think of no movie that more clearly and beautifully states the theme and purpose of Christmas than these words. And it is this beautiful sermon that raises it from simply a great film to the greatest Christmas film yet made.

(Oh, and don’t for a second even bother with that horrendous remake The Preacher’s Wife.)

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The Greatest Films of Christmas #3 It’s a Wonderful Life

wonderful life.jpg“Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”

Besides the fact this movie has Capra’s usual bizarre caricature of rich people (anyone with Potter’s attitude and traits would not stay wealthy for very long let alone George Bailey’s entire life) this is a great film.

Long before cheap sci-fi took up the concept of the butterfly effect, this story asked how much do we affect the lives of those around us. And George Bailey seemed, even in his less happy moments, to always be a force for good in life.

If I really have to summarize the plot for you…well, that’s just sad. If you haven’t seen this movie go out and see it right now.

The point you are supposed to get out of this film is not only that life is precious and worth living, but that we all improve the world around us. Every little choice, when made with the right frame of mind, looking for the long term rather than the short term (as George did in trying to stop the run on his bank), thinking of others equal to how much you think of yourself, of standing up for what it right and opposing what we know to be wrong, and forgiving ourselves our mistakes when we are less than perfect—every little choice affects the lives of others in ways we can never see and with results we can never know. Now, the very lives of everyone in the town we live in probably doesn’t depend immediately on what choices we make…or at least we think it doesn’t…but does it need to be a whole city before we worry about our choices. What if the choices we make only affect a dozen, or half a dozen, or even only one other person (although I doubt any of us have such little impact)? Even if only one, think about the power that our choices have, think of how much we are worth if we can make the world better for only one other person.

Let me go off on my New Age tangents for a second. An often overlooked point of George Bailey’s life is how important his antagonist, the cartoonish Mr. Potter was. Without Potter George would have left Bedford Falls, he would have gone to college, probably been a mid-level architect, never married Mary, never been the person who fought to help those around him, never been the great man he was. Destiny put in his path a force that would bring out the best in him rather than let him steer toward the mediocrity of what is considered success by the standards of the hoi polloi. So next time you run across someone you really hate…ask yourself, have they been placed there to bring out something good in you…and are you letting that good portion come out?

On the other hand, while not a major point, I just need to point out that this movie perpetuates one of the worst spiritual lies of all time. It suggests that humans become angels when they die. I believe angels do exist, but in no religious or serious spiritual belief on Earth have angels ever been human.

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Best Films of Christmas #4 Love Actually

MV5BMTY4NjQ5NDc0Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNjk5NDM3._V1_SX640_SY720_.jpg“But for now, let me say – Without hope or agenda – Just because it’s Christmas – And at Christmas you tell the truth – To me, you are perfect – And my wasted heart will love you.”

Ignoring that there is probably someone for each of us whom at some point in our life we have wanted to do that card thing for someone we love with all our hearts who may not love us back for some valid reason or another…

As far a Christmas romance films go there is none better than this film. Panned by critics loved by real human beings who have some semblance of real taste. This movie isn’t just about romantic love, or the good feeling we experience at Christmas. This movie is about every kind of love. First Love, just sex, unrequited love, newlyweds, friendship, star crossed love, the love of parents for their children, for siblings, new love and even the darker side of love: lost opportunities and betrayal. Love. Not since Plato’s Symposium has there been a work this explicitly about love.

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion… love actually is all around.”

And it is.

The scenes at the beginning and end of this film looking at the meetings of people at the airport is probably the sweetest and most touching moment of not just this film, but of any film, to a great deal because it’s real. It highlights how we tend to focus only on the negative in our lives, almost to the complete exclusion of the good in our lives…and this is the season to remember the good. And to remember that we are loved.

And learning about love is this movie’s central premise. That we need to “get the shit kicked out of us by love” should be a morning affirmation for each of us. The pain, the hurt, the suffering…it’s all worth it. It’s worth telling the person you love that you love them even if you know they can’t reciprocate. It’s worth risking your position and stature to go for the person you care for. And it’s certainly worth pissing off whatever fascist variant of the TSA the country you are in just to express how you feel. (Oh and it’s never worth betraying someone or not taking a chance. Never.) It’s worth crossing oceans “just in cases.”

Now if only David Cameron could deliver a similar speech…

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Best Films of Christmas #5 An American Christmas Carol

dvdxmascarolamerAs I’ve said before I’m not a big fan of the Christmas Carol story. Why? Because it shows the naïve and twisted view of human nature and society that only a socialist like Dickens could come up with (Honestly, with a cast of hundreds I think the only character he ever wrote that I liked was Sydney Carton…and Dickens killed him).

So here we have a TV version of the Christmas Carol, staring the Fonz as our Scrooge set in early Depression East Coast America. What makes this so much better than the original?

First off it shows that the Scrooge mentality is just bad business, which it is. It shows that the mentality of foreclosing and miserly hoardings is not actually good capitalism but rather shortsighted foolishness. In the first few scenes his version of Bob Cratchit suggests he should invest in a granite quarry to help stimulate the local economy and given FDR’s new programs it won’t go under again like it did a few years ago. Our Scrooge, Ben Slade in this case, fires his employee…for making a good business suggestion. Yeah, this guy is a genius of finance. They also show that Slade’s mentor is partly responsible for driving him to his bad business habits in not encouraging him when he tried to bring innovation and modernization to his mentor…so you can see where he picked up his traits of looking at good business ideas and just dismissing them out of hand.

Its better because it shows him losing his love is what drove him away from people not vice versa which makes a lot more sense when one has an understanding of human nature. Also it shows him as having been an orphan which makes his desire for material security far more understandable (maybe not forgivable, but in the original story Scrooge is from a well off family but not loved, which psychologically makes little sense that he would become a miser being raised in such an environment).

Further Slade is not the preposterous exaggeration that Scrooge was. He does have feeling for others, going as far to give books to the local orphans (this is before the ghosts) to try and encourage them that they can make anything of their own lives (while not toys, it certainly doesn’t indicate the sociopath the original Scrooge was). This Scrooge may be a petty businessman and a short term thinker who is a stickler for rules and immediate payment…but he is not a complete sociopath.

And finally there is the ending. Rather than that bizarre original ending where Scrooge works his way into the Cratchit family (because that makes sense), Slade seeks to truly leave a mark and adopts a child from the orphanage he had once been saved from with the hope of not repeating the same mistakes that were made in his upbringing. Far more hopeful and far more tender.

Only one version of a Christmas Carol to go…

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The Best Films of Christmas #6 The Family Man

This unusual take on It’s A Wonderful Life’s look at how the world would be different without you. Jack Campbell (Nicholas Cage), the president of a powerful Wall Street firm, is actually quite content with his life. He has just about everything he ever wanted, he has a job he loves, he is admired and respected by his coworkers and friends, he even knows how to appreciate the small things like witty banter and snowfall, he has no debilitating psychological problems. He’s single, but he justifies it with, “I took the road less traveled.” But after he intervenes to save the lives of innocent people in a corner store hold up…he makes the mistake of telling the robber (who appears to be an angel in disguise, played by the always great Don Cheadle) that he doesn’t need anything, he has everything he wants. He wakes up to find what life would be like if he hadn’t become a powerful executive but instead had married his college sweetheart. Managing a tire store, kids, living in Jersey. A slight difference to his worth is that unlike George Bailey the world at large seemed to have gone exactly the same…except that part around him. Him, his wife, his kids, it’s those small things. The things that matter and actually make up a life.

Half the fun is watching him adjust to his new middle class life. His adorable daughter who is convinced this man who replaced her father is an alien made to look like her dad…but it’s okay because he can make chocolate milk and has promised to not plant stuff in her brain. And then there are all the mistakes that he makes out of ignorance of what he should know about his alternate life. But of course the main highlight is him falling in love with his wife all over again, and making her love him, not just the memory of who she thinks he is.

And while we know he will finally learn what he was missing in not having a loving wife and a family we kind of do feel sorry for him that he has lost everything he has earned. Yes, because of the liberal media, we have an image of Wall Street execs as these heartless monsters who live to crush those below them. We all know when we stop to think logically that people on Wall Street are no better or worse than their middle and lower class counterparts (they have morons to geniuses, monsters to saints) but we seldom see the good depicted in the media. But it’s refreshing to see Jack Campbell depicted as not just human, but a good man, even before his switch. He knows people’s names and talks with them like equals, gives free advice, he even has an assistant whom he seems to encourage her to constantly insult him to keep him grounded…and, of course, moves to saves people’s lives when he is under no obligation. The movie has the great point that money isn’t evil nor a job unfulfilling…but even those are nothing compared to the joy of true love and a family.

This of course is the only good film ever made by director Bret Ratner…how such a terrible director created such a great movie, I’m not sure., but he did.

I know we could both go on with our lives and we’d both be fine, but I’ve seen what we could be like together. And I choose us.

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Best Films of Christmas #7 Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Amends


Angel: Buffy, please. Just this once… let me be strong.
Buffy: Strong is fighting! It’s hard, and it’s painful, and it’s every day. It’s what we have to do. And we can do it together. But if you’re too much of a coward for that, then burn. If I can’t convince you that you belong in this world, then I don’t know what can. But do not expect me to watch. And don’t expect me to mourn for you, because…

Huh? Buffy? Christmas? Has the Conservative New Ager gone more insane than usual?

This episode was called “one of the most explicitly religious hours of television ever aired” by the entertainment editor of The Weekly Standard…so clearly I’m not the only Conservative who thinks this.

(There is a fascinating lack of YouTube clips to choose from so I will quote liberally here).

But why is it a Christmas story. Well, for starters it takes place on Christmas Eve. But a lot of TV shows have their cheesy, shallow, lip service Christmas episode…why does this one stand out. Well first of all because, like most Buffy episodes it’s not cheesy or shallow.

Shallow doesn’t usually include lines like:

Look, I’m weak. I’ve never been anything else. It’s not the demon in me that needs killing, Buffy. It’s the man. […]Am I a thing worth saving, huh? Am I a righteous man? The world wants me gone!
Buffy: What about me? I love you so much… And I tried to make you go away… I killed you and it didn’t help. And I hate it! I hate that it’s so hard… and that you can hurt me so much. I know everything that you did, because you did it to me. Oh, God! I wish that I wished you dead. I don’t. I can’t.

“You’re weak. Everybody is. Everybody fails. Maybe this evil did bring you back. But if it did it’s because it needs you. And that means that you can hurt it. Angel, you have the power to do real good. To make amends. But if you die now then all that you ever were was a monster. Angel please the sun is coming up.” “Just go.”

Angel, the vampire with a soul, taunted by a tarted up version of Satan, is tempted to lose his soul…Angel instead tries to kill himself by waiting for the sun on Christmas morning. Convinced the world is a better place without someone as flawed as him. The words of his beloved Buffy cannot convince him otherwise…and that’s where that quote I put at the beginning of this blog picks up. Because, in what may be the only sign in the Buffy universe that there is a benevolent God, a Christmas miracle occurs. A freak snowstorm blotting out the sun in a California beach town that had only been in the high 70’s the day before.

Why is this a Christmas story? Because the Christmas story is one about how each of us is worthy of redemption and can make amends. It’s a message that there is good in all of us, even when we ourselves might not see the good. And it is a story about the fact that God wants us to find that good in ourselves because he definitely believes in us. And that is shown in this episode which is probably the best episode (top 5 at bare minimum) of this wonderful TV show.


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Best Films of Christmas #8 Ben-Hur

“And I felt his voice take the sword out of my hand.”

This is a great film in it’s own right, and the only film on this list to depict the nativity. That alone should establish its credentials as a Christmas film…but there are of course some other reasons why it should be considered a Christmas film. One of the magi as a main character, love, redemption, forgiveness and peace on earth to men of goodwill. And my favorite depiction of Christ, one where a director is not arrogant or foolish enough to try and depict him or his words by a direct shot but only trying to show his affect on those around him … (my second favorite film depiction would be the one where the Captain of the Enterprise portrayed him…but it’s a distant second.)

But this is just a great movie. Wyler shows skill that most directors could only dream of. A battle of wills in the rowing scene which could have been tedious but thanks to good direction, acting and music turns it into one of the more tense and enthralling scenes in film history. Several moments that will always make me cry …and of course the greatest action sequence in the history of film: the chariot race.

If you are not versed in classic film I will give you a really quick run down. Judean nobleman Judah Ben-Hur is betrayed by his childhood friend the Roman Tribune Messala and condemned to a Roman slave galley. He prays to God, quite sacrilegiously, that he is allowed to live to have his vengeance. God seems to constantly grant his prayer (sometimes by convenient chance, sometimes by direct intervention on the few times that Ben-Hur happens to run into Jesus). His quest for vengeance against the man who wronged him eventually and quite unintentionally turns into a path to redemption and religious conversion.

I’ve heard people critique the acting ability of Charlton Heston, for those who do I suggest they watch this movie carefully. A sense of betrayal conveyed in a slight hand gesture. A sense of peace in a look. And redemption in only a change in facial expression.

Oh, by the way, never read the book. I have seldom encountered a book as god-awfully boring as Lew Wallace’s tedious work. It’s only a few hundred pages but the pace at which it progresses would make you think it was a Russian novel.

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Best Christmas Films #9 A Charlie Brown Christmas

charliexmas1.jpg“Dear Santa Claus, how have you been? Did you have a nice summer? How is your wife? I have been extra good this year—so I have a long list of presents that I want. Please note the size and color of each item and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: Just send money. How about 10’s and 20’s? […] All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”

So besides the fact that when Sally Brown grew older (not necessarily up) she ended up living campaigning for Bernie Sanders…what makes A Charlie Brown Christmas still a timely Christmas tale?


I love that tree

For me it’s Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. It’s simple and plain, but it is perfect. Not flashy, not bright, but a symbol of the holidays chosen for the right reason, “it seems to need a home” “I think it needs me.”… Charlie Brown, in one of his few moments of being the voice of reason, sees that that all the foibles of the Peanuts cast need to be ignored and the simple reasons for the holiday, the simple joys and loves need to be embraced.

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Greatest Films of Christmas #10 Michael

michael.jpg“I’m not that kind of angel.”

A Christmas story of an angel who fights, swears, drinks, smokes, fornicates. And he’s not too hot on suffering fools either. And he eats enough sugar at one meal to cause an army to develop Type II diabetes. But he smells like cookies….and he wants everybody to be as happy as life will allow.

Such is the improbably tale of Michael. I forever have mixed feelings over this movie…because I actually believe in the Archangel Michael, I pray for his help on a near daily basis…and I just don’t see him being such a worthless, though lovable, lout. But I have to assume that any divine being has a good sense of humor so I don’t worry too much.

“It’s a difficult case—to give a man back his heart.”

It is the story of Michael (played by John Travolta …it works for the movie) who comes back to redeem two characters Frank Quinlan (William Hurt) and Dorothy Winters (Andie MacDowell) who both work for a supermarket tabloid. Both have become cynical and cold and lost their desire to live life and love. And over the course of a long car trip to Chicago filled with a battle with a bull, the world’s largest ball of twine, the world’s largest non-stick frying pan, a few misdemeanors he shows them that they can embrace their hearts again.

It’s a Christmas story for several reasons. First off it takes place at Christmas. Snow, angels, Santa, elves, Christmas trees. All the trappings. And for the deeper reasons as well, for the fact that this is a story of love and of redemption—of learning that your guardian angel is always there for you even when you don’t see it.

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Greatest Films of Christmas #11 Christmas in Connecticut

Another great Barbara Stanwyck film. And like Meet John Doe it’s based on a newspaper woman who writes a phony column. In this case Stanwyck is Elizabeth Lane where she writes a weekly column, Smart Housekeeping, about good housekeeping based on her Connecticut farm life, child-rearing based on her experience with raising her newborn, and quality cooking based on the meals she lays out for her husband every night. Only one problem to this. She lives in a New York City high-rise; she hates farms, has no husband or child, and couldn’t cook to save her life. Other than those little things it’s a great column.

But enter a problem. The paper has just been bought out by millionaire Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet in what may be the only likable character he ever played) and Yardley has his own problem. He has been asked by a nurse to give a Navy sailor in her care a Christmas dinner experience with his favorite food columnist Elizabeth Lane. Given that this is in the middle of WWII and patriotism is at its highest, and this particular sailor nearly died after spending weeks at sea without any food (hence his love of a food column). Lane and her editor who have always had an agreement about the false nature of her column are at a loss…they can fess up that there is no home in Connecticut and get fired or…or…or….Lane can take up the marriage offer of a friend who has been asking for years, and who just so happens to have a farm in Connecticut…and they’ll bring along her friend Felix (the man who has written all the recipes for her column) so that they can cover up the fact that she can’t cook. Oh and they get a baby for the day—don’t ask—to make the charade complete.
It should come as no shock that this is a romantic comedy. It’s not particularly deep but it wonderfully tugs at the heart strings.
I can’t exactly say that beyond love it has much to actually do with any theme of Christmas….but I love this movie too much to care.

I also love this as it shows a kind-hearted rich person (and it just feels strange to see Sidney Greenstreet as someone who is jolly and friendly and not sleazy in the least). Greenstreet’s Yardley is jovial and lovable and friendly and caring. Just as I’m sure many of the 1% are.
It’s not a deep movie, but it’s a fun one and I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it.

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Best Films of Christmas #12 Miracle on 34th Street

“Maybe he’s only a little crazy, like painters or composers, or some of those men in Washington.”

I don’t know how “little crazy” applies to “those men in Washington” but Kris Kringle certainly isn’t crazy.

Almost from the beginning we love the old man who notices little things like how toy reindeer are ordered. And we’re not entirely sure of whether he’s not crazy or the real thing. We want to believe…but it’s a hard pill to swallow.

But then he starts the genius that is putting customer happiness above immediate profit and sending people where they can actually get what they want…which in turn leads to actually making more profit. I’m perpetually dumbfounded that this did not become standard policy for stores after this movie came out, it seems to me that it would work…after all a lot of places are showing what the prices on certain items are at competitors (even if they undercut the price)…why shouldn’t stocked items be similar.

But the great salesmanship isn’t my favorite part of the movie. Nor is seeing the only time in history where a branch of the federal government ever acted with intelligence and wisdom (in real life the post office would probably have just shot some random people). Or that when the D.A.’s son is on the witness stand. Or not (okay can we just admit this movie has a lot of great scenes and move on)… And it’s not even when Natalie Wood gets her dream house. My favorite part is when at Macy’s Kris talks to the Dutch girl who has just emigrated from war ravaged Europe. I don’t know where the writer/director found the actress who plays the Dutch girl but the face she makes when he begins talking to her in Dutch perfectly encapsulates all the joy children have at Christmas (and I think the actress playing the mother really is on the verge of crying). It’s a beautiful scene.

And again I’m struck with how different the art of the trailer was back then…

I realized I had yet to include the honorable mentions, so now is as good a time as any.

3 Godfathers: John Wayne as one of the Three Wise Men directed by John Ford. That’s about as Christmassy as it gets, what with the bank heist and death of two wise men and all…but it’s still a good movie.

While you were Sleeping: more happens around New Years than Christmas, but still an excellent Christmas time movie.

Serendipity: It begins and ends at Christmas other than that it has nothing to do with Christmas. But this story of destiny taking a strong hand in the lives of two star-crossed lovers appeals to the New Ager in me.

We’re No Angels: A Christmas movie, in the South Pacific, that’s a comedy starring Humphrey Bogart. No I’m not on any kind of hallucinogens; they actually made a movie with that improbable plot as a set up. And it has a murderous snake. Don’t ask me to explain…just go see it.

The Ref: Thematically this has nothing to do with Christmas, even if the whole movie takes place on Christmas Eve. But I love witty, dark and dry comedy.

Same reason for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

And I actually have never been a fan of Meet Me in St. Louis as a whole…but you can’t deny how wonderful a song “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is.

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The Best Films of Christmas #13 Meet John Doe


“Why can’t that spirit, that warm Christmas spirit, last all year long?”

It’s kind of a Christmas film, it talks about Christmas a lot…it’s more an anti-fascist film (which in 1940—and 2011—is a relevant issue)…although I’m not a fan of Capra’s preference for socialism, not that there is any difference between the two systems other than PR (Capra’s understanding of politics was infantile at best, but after all I’m talk about a man who adds a scene into Lost Horizon that praises pacifism and appeasement as the only way for society to move forward…which for a movie made in 1937 comes off as first rate thinking…I wonder how that policy would have turned out if put into practice?)

After being fired from her job at a paper Barbara Stanwyck writes a fake letter about someone so upset with the state of the world during the depression that he will jump off city hall at Christmas in protest, signed John Doe…just when printed it will embarrass the idiot who didn’t check before publishing.  But rather than embarrassing them, it generates a massive amount of interest…so much that the paper has to hire Stanwyck back to make sure she keeps her mouth shut…and the paper decides to hire a man to pretend to be John Doe.  Enter Gary Cooper.

Now the paper that is running this story is led by a wealthy businessman who Capra has an American stand-in for Hitler/Tojo/Mussolini/ Franco.  And as they publish Gary Cooper’s picture they publish it next to an article protesting the sorry state of the world.  Capra is clever enough to put it with sometimes valid complaints but he chooses the same complaints that Hitler and Goebbels used to gain populist support in Germany:

Against businesses owning politicians, against entitlement programs not providing enough, against there not being enough free health care to the poor, that the rich had too much, that they’re not paying their fair share (I know Capra chose this list of complaints because it’s what the Nazi’s used…but it sounds very familiar, I just can’t place it, I’ll have to let it Occupy my thought for a while and maybe I’ll realize where I’ve heard this list before) until mobs of people join in protest.  Anyway let’s leave the politics behind because they quickly become a secondary theme.

In trying to get away from the pessimism of the initial campaign Stanwyck writes a speech for Cooper that deals with the positive in life.  And when drafts that rely on meaningless platitudes don’t work (although in reality just uttering meaningless phrases tends to work for a while)she decides to write a speech about caring for each other and helping each other and seeing the best in ourselves and others…and uses as its key point that this behavior is evident at Christmas.

(Notice how there is no mention of government in this speech).

The movie continues with Cooper’s character realizing he is being used for something evil.  He ends up feeling that the only way to prove that the words he said in that speech were true is by fulfilling the original John Doe letter by jumping off the building.  At the last minute he is talked out of it by Stanwyck telling him that he can recover his faith and credibility:

Please don’t give up. We’ll start all over again. Just you and I. It isn’t too late. The John Doe movement isn’t dead yet. You see, John, it isn’t dead or they wouldn’t be here. It’s alive in them. They kept it alive by being afraid. That’s why they came up here. Oh, darling!… We can start clean now. Just you and I. It’ll grow John, and it’ll grow big because it’ll be honest this time. Oh, John, if it’s worth dying for, it’s worth living for. Oh please, John… You wanna be honest, don’t ya? Well, you don’t have to die to keep the John Doe ideal alive. Someone already died for that once. The first John Doe. And he’s kept that ideal alive for nearly 2,000 years. It was He who kept it alive in them. And He’ll go on keeping it alive for ever and always – for every John Doe movement these men kill, a new one will be born. That’s why those bells are ringing, John. They’re calling to us, not to give up but to keep on fighting, to keep on pitching. Oh, don’t you see darling? This is no time to give up.

Honestly this movie has a lot more flaws than most on this list (the heavy handed politics borders on farce at times, but I’ll admit Capra had an enemy to deal with where subtlety was not called for).   But if you ignore those weaker aspects of the movie and focus on Stanwyck and Cooper it is a very moving and powerful tale.

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Greatest Films of Christmas#14 O. Henry’s Full House

Another often forgotten gem of Christmas is this collection of short tales.  Within this movie are five shorts based on the stories of O. Henry

Now not all of these are Christmas tales, but they all speak to the best in humanity (well, maybe not the 3rd one on the list) and they all touch your heart so I’m going to go over all of them.

And in addition to describing the scenes I’m going to link the title of each one to the original short story which I highly recommend you read (are you surprised the English teacher is telling you to go read something?)

The Cop and the Anthem

The story of a homeless man, Soapy (played by Charles Laughton) in New York who has no desire to work or earn a living…but winter is coming and he needs to find a way to get into his usual winter residence: jail.  Not a long stay mind you, just a nice 3 month stay where he can get a bed and blanket every night and 3 meals every day without having to work for any of it.  The problem is that the fates seem to be against him…he tries to proposition a woman in front of a cop and get sent to jail for that crime, but the woman he propositions (played by Marilyn Monroe) happens to actually be of the oldest profession and tries to get away from the cop’s notice as quickly as possible.  Dine and dash and destruction of property also fail.  At last Soapy falls on his knees in a church humbled at what he has become and promising to reform his life and become a better man.  It’s at this point he’s arrested for loitering.

What I like about this story is that for a story written in the first decade of the 1900’s it realizes the problem of government entitlements long before anyone was dumb enough to stop relying on private charity and go to the idea that government can do better.  O. Henry observes, through Soapy, that private charity always comes with the cost of bettering yourself, the government has no such concern it only gives things:

“There was an endless round of institutions, municipal and eleemosynary, on which he might set out and receive lodging and food accordant with the simple life. But to one of Soapy’s proud spirit the gifts of charity are encumbered. If not in coin you must pay in humiliation of spirit for every benefit received at the hands of philanthropy. As Caesar had his Brutus, every bed of charity must have its toll of a bath, every loaf of bread its compensation of a private and personal inquisition. Wherefore it is better to be a guest of the law, which though conducted by rules, does not meddle unduly with a gentleman’s private affairs.”

The Clarion Call

The story of a cop who finds that an old acquaintance, whom he owes several hundred dollars to, is also guilty of murder (keep in mind what several hundred is in 1900…after all you can buy a pure platinum chain for only $20…more on that later) .  His personal honor will not let him arrest someone he is indebted to; his professional honor cannot let a murderer go free.  And as he walks this tight rope of personal integrity he eventually finds a way to make the money in one night (legally) and see that justice is done.

This is the story that will probably strike modern audiences as the most unusual as the concept of personal honor and integrity is something sadly lacking in a society where you literally get a TV show if you can show yourself to be the trashiest thing TV producers can find.

The Ransom of Red Chief

The great Howard Hawks directs this comedic short story of two thieves and conmen who kidnap the worst child in the existence of human history.  No really.  The kidnappers in the end have to pay a ransom to get the parents to take him back.

And now we get to the Christmas themed stories

The Last Leaf 

Probably my favorite O. Henry short story…and my least favorite part of the movie.  Why you ask? Because they went out of their way to change almost every point in the story.  In the film version the two female characters are sisters instead of just friends, not artists as they were in the story, and the woman who is on the verge of death has lost the will to live only because she has just been dumped by her boyfriend (which is an insulting level of misogyny that you will not find in the original).  Did we have to change it from two women who are just friends and artists, living together in what appears to be a one bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village? I don’t know if O. Henry was implying what the producers of this film were trying to censor, but it’s still insulting to change the story that much.

Still the Puritanical bowdlerizing aside this is still a tear-jerker story of sacrifice and love.  I’m not actually going to tell you the plot to this one because if you don’t know it then you deserve the emotional catharsis of finding out what happens to the last leaf.  But read the story first, it’s much more touching.

Not thrilled with some of the changes they made to the story,but touching all the same.

And of course

The Gift of the Magi

Keep your readings of a Christmas Carol and Twas the Night before Christmas, don’t bother picking up the book The Bishop’s Wife is based on, and forget your going over the story of the nativity, even the gospels, for in the history of Christmas no story has ever so fully encapsulated the meaning of this holiday and what makes it great…and probably none ever will surpass it.  If you can read this story or watch this film version and not cry, you have no soul.

And the movie does the story justice.  The actors, Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger, are probably not the most successful actors in history (although Crain’s People Will Talk is an excellent movie) but I can’t see anyone doing a better job than the performance of these two.

And I won’t remind you of the plot of this story because I assume you don’t live in a cave, but I leave off with O. Henry’s closing words:

The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

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Best Films of Christmas #15 Remember the Night


In the word of screenwriter Preston Sturges, “Love reformed her and corrupted him.”

Remember the Night is an often forgotten Christmas film, which is a shame as movies with Barbara Stanwyck are always great (in fact this is the first of three on the list).

Now since I’m going to bet no one knows the plotline to this film (as opposed to just about all the other films on this list which we know almost by heart) I’m going to reveal some spoilers.  The movie follows Stanwyck’s character Lee Leander, a thief who is caught stealing an expensive diamond necklace only a few days before Christmas.  Enter Fred MacMurray’s character John Sargent, New York City Assistant D.A.   Knowing that a jury won’t convict her only a couple of days before Christmas he gets the trial postponed until after the New Year so that he can get a conviction.  While clever he is not heartless and asks the local (and rather shifty) bail bondsman to bail her out so that she can be out of prison.  Said bail bondsman, thinking that Sargent has more lascivious reasons than just Christmas charity, brings her to Sargent’s apartment after baling her out.  Sargent, who is just desperate to just leave for his mother’s home in Ohio, convinces Lee that he has no intention of taking advantage of her, but he decides she deserves a good meal before he leaves.  At dinner he finds out that she has no where to stay other than prison…except her mother’s in Ohio.  By now you can see the trip to Ohio they will both take, how her mother doesn’t want to have anything do with her and how our beautiful thief ends up spending Christmas with her prosecutor and his family.  Each step in this story is motivated by Sargent’s desire to show a good and charitable Christmas spirit (except for that desire to convict her).

It should come as the exact opposite of a surprise that it just happened one night that these two fall in love.

Besides the obvious fact that this movie takes place at Christmas, it is a Christmas film because it is about seeing the best in everyone, about forgiveness and about redemption.  In this film everyone behaves in a way that is directed to show the best within us and that no one is beyond hope.

(Am I the only one who feels that as movies have gotten worse over the decades, trailers have gotten consistently better?)
(And my conservative beliefs are soothed by the fact that the only truly vicious people are shown to be government agents who wished to nickel and dime people with unjust regulations and a low class welfare recipient.)

I’m not going to say this is the most original story of all time (although it being made in 1940 does kind of make it more original than it may seem).

All in all a great Chirstmas film.

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The Best Films of Christmas #16 The Holiday


The Holiday (not to be confused with the great Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn film Holiday) the 2006 film about the characters portrayed by Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet switching houses in Surrey and L.A. for two weeks around the Christmas season is newest addition to the cannon of great Christmas films.   It’s a wonderful love story.

Just as a film it’s a good one.  The first few scenes where we see Diaz try to cry is hilarious, but that it’s followed by Winslet on a crying jag is just sadly delightful. The fact that Diaz, a person who cuts movie trailers, is followed by the disembodied deep voice from movie trailers that narrates portions of her life is a great addition.

These two women and their romantic partners (Jude Law and Jack Black) provide a wonderful story of love and moving forward in life.  Hell, this is pretty much the only movie I can think of where I don’t just not feel like punching Jack Black in the face (there are movies Jack Black isn’t even in, where I feel like punching him)– I actually like him in this film.   All four main characters are not perfect but we love them all and none of them have unforgivable traits so we are utterly relieved that all of them get the love they have been seeking.  Oh, and the actresses playing Jude Law’s daughters are unspeakably adorable in this movie, as all children in film tend to be (yeah try subbing for a day in kindergarten and see if you find them as adorable, is all I have to say).  So all in all this is a wonderful romantic comedy…but why is it a holiday film?

Well first, and I had forgotten this fact when I was first setting up this list, there is a Chanukah party in this film! I forgot about this!  I am declaring this the best Chanukah film by default since there were no other good ones to speak of!  And before you complain that it is only a short period of time in the film, consider how tenuous the connection to Christmas some of the films on this list have.  This is being declared as the best Chanukah movie yet made by Hollywood.

Well, first there is the issue of giving gifts.  Winslet’s character, who came to L.A. to just escape her life, ends up helping an aging screenwriter (played by Eli Wallach) regain a passion for life.  The Diaz-Law and Winslet-Black of course are based on the non-selfish love that seeks to make the object of their love happy.

Next there is the issue that Christmas (the whole season when you count Solstice and New Years) is a time of new beginnings and starting afresh.  In the stories of all of the central characters in this movie, they are able to put their past behind them and leave it in the past and move onto a real life that will actually bring them happiness.  In fact this movie makes it quite clear that living in the past is always a bad thing—respecting and learning from the past, good, fondly remembering the past, good…but living there isn’t living.

On multiple levels it’s just a fun romantic comedy, but it does match up to several of the themes of the holiday, even if it doesn’t explicitly try to be a Christmas movie.

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