WASHINGTON, December 1, 2014 — Oops! Where did Thanksgiving go? It’s Cyber Monday already, which means that Santa Claus is on his way. Not to mention the veritable plethora of Christmas-themed movies that inevitably show up at your local cinema every December, or, better yet, the avalanche of Christmas movies that show up on network and cable TV.
Classic Christmas films−and occasionally their soundtracks−are a way of looking back on year-end holiday celebrations past, and, occasionally, having a laugh or three at what happens when families get together for that once-a-year visit along with all the consequences.
The very best of Christmas films add just the right touch of wistfulness and nostalgia, even creating for some of us more positive images of Christmases we’d like to have had but never did.
Christmas movies come and go, but over the years, a number of standout classics have remained in the must-view repertoire. Everyone has his or her list of faves, but we’re offering our own 2014 Top Ten list here. Colleagues Claire Hickey and Bob Siegel started out our tradition, and we’ve kept things going, adding and subtracting as older candidates fade and newer ones manage to muscle in.
This year’s Top 10 Christmas classic films are listed in reverse order, five in this column, and the Final Five in our next. Which means you have to read this whole article (and our next one) to get to our top pick. Feel free to add your own Christmas movie picks — and pans — in our comments section.
So, let’s go to the movies.
10. “Babes in Toyland.”
This 1961 Disney flick is likely only remembered today by now-aging Boomers whose moms dragged them off to see it when it was first released or when they watched it later on TV. There have been lame new versions since then, including a 1986 film starring Drew Barrymore and Keanu Reeves (!), and an animated version in 1997. But the Disney version is still the classic.
The Disney studios had obviously hoped they’d have a big hit on their hands back in 1961, with a movie appealing to that massive and still youthful Boomer audience. Why would that be? The studio cast teen idols like Tommy Sands and Disney’s pre-adolescent/adolescent dream girl Annette Funicello in key roles. But the studio also cast the demographic net a bit wider by including longtime song-and-dance man Ray Bolger — famous to Boomers as the Scarecrow from “Wizard of Oz” — as the villain.
“Babes-the-Movie” was based very loosely on an original Victor Herbert operetta dating from the dawn of the 20th century, which itself was based on a collection of fairy tales. Herbert’s original was actually quite a dark fantasy. Disney modified things with the usual Disney Magic, re-molding the story into a more positive confection that tracked with Christmas and the Christmas message−or at least its 1961 pre-extermination-of-religion edition.
Admittedly, at least the first half of this film is a bit on the tedious side, which likely sank it as a recurring holiday favorite. But what this updated Disney musical does retain is much of Herbert’s enchanting musical score, including its wistful song, “Toyland,” and perhaps its best known tune, the catchy, purely instrumental “March of the Toys,” reimagined in the film as the “March of the Toy Soldiers.”
This scene is brilliantly executed via some very impressive, way-pre-CGI special effects depicting the inanimate toy soldiers and the moment they spring to life, led into battle by a “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” sized Tommy Sands.
It’s both the joy of hearing Victor Herbert’s wonderful music again and the surprisingly good special effects that get this Christmas film a place on the bottom rung of our Top 10 list.
Let’s take a look at that great Toy Soldier scene and recapture that magical moment. Tommy Sands grabs a trumpet and sounds the battle cry.
9. “The Lemon Drop Kid” (1951).
This Bob Hope classic is based, like “Guys and Dolls,” on the popular fiction of Damon Runyon.
Current generations likely don’t even know who Bob Hope was, although a new bio of Hope was published just last week that might help rectify the error. For the younger set, Bob, with best pal and fellow song and dance man Bing Crosby, was one half of Hollywood’s most popular film buddy act for the better part of 25 years.
The indefatigable Hope later caught his second wave of fame as a TV personality, and famously hosted the Oscar ceremonies for years. Routinely complaining about never winning an Oscar, which he never really did, he arguably did a far better job hosting this often interminable extravaganza with wit and brisk pacing−both often lacking in current editions.
Hope was also a stalwart supporter of American GIs wherever they were stationed. He spearheaded immensely popular USO-style Christmas shows for soldiers in active warzones for decades, some of which were taped and later run on TV as popular Christmas specials.
Unsurprisingly, Hope unhesitatingly supported America’s war effort in Vietnam. This seriously politically incorrect move was likely why he was largely written out of the entertainment world’s historical narrative and consigned to the Left-Wing Hollywood Blacklist. Maybe that new bio we noted will give put Hope back in the Hollywood pantheon where he belongs.
In his heyday, Hope was a decent hoofer, a comic genius, and a pretty good vocalist to boot, all of which are on display in the following clip. This film’s signature Christmas tune, “Silver Bells,” was introduced to America right here. The Kid from Cleveland is aided and abetted by co-star Marilyn Maxwell.
Trivia question: At the beginning of this clip, trivia buffs should pay careful attention. Be on the alert for the gruff singing and speaking voice of the very crabby Santa opening the clip. We’ll give you the answer right after the video if you haven’t already guessed.
Hey, no peeking. Just watch.
Right you are, nostalgia buffs! Our Bad Santa is none other than prickly William Frawley, best to TV aficionados as Ricky and Lucy Ricardo’s cranky neighbor Fred Mertz on “I Love Lucy.”
The rest of “Lemon Drop” doesn’t actually have a whole lot to do with Christmas. But it put “Silver Bells” firmly on the popular Christmas song map and that’s why it’s on our list.
8. “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945).
Speaking of Bob Hope’s pal, let’s turn now to this sentimental Bing Crosby classic. As Claire Hickey corrected observed, “only part of this movie takes place at Christmas but it gets lots of play during the holidays. The basic message behind this movie is peace and goodwill so it fits.”
The film is also an interesting historical artifact. In this otherwise thoroughly Protestant country (back in the day), good-hearted, particularly Irish-American priests were frequently cast in American films as heroic and morally upright role models, often practicing their faith in poor, inner-city parishes. But at the same time, it was unthinkable for a Catholic to become President. Go figure.
Bing Crosby, playing a youngish parish priest in this film, certainly fit the part of an Irish Catholic priest, since he’d grown up under a parochial school regime himself as a youth. The role also gave this amazingly popular actor/vocalist a chance to sing in the movie, which, along with its two-hanky story line, proved a big hit on the silver screen. As the film was released, World War II was drawing to a close for America. Thoughts were quickly turning back toward home, family. Hard as it is to believe in 2014, American hearts swelled universally with an overwhelming pride and gratitude for being part of One mighty and newly triumphant Nation under God. Today, such thoughts and sentiments are regarded as right-wing extremism. Things don’t necessarily change for the better.
American angst aside, here’s a clip of Der Bingle singing the title song, accompanied by a bevy of musically accomplished singing nuns:
7. “The Santa Clause” (1994).
Bob Siegel called this “A unique idea and fresh take on the Santa Claus legend. This time,” Bob continued, “we learn that ‘Santa Claus’ is actually the title of an office to be filled. When one Santa dies, another takes his place.”
At the outset, this sounds like another typically stupid Hollywood plot line. But you never know. And in this case, the stupid plotline was made funny and incredibly amusing due to the creativity of this film’s marquee star. Or, as Bob put it in his piece, “The movie would not have worked without the subtle but piercing wit of Tim Allen. His timing and facial mannerisms are priceless.”
Second the motion. This is one of our very few modern Christmas classics. The following official 1994 trailer will give you a clue as to why.
6. “White Christmas” (1954).
Included in our selection of this film is its predecessor, the earlier “Holiday Inn” (1942), which we’d classify as either a tie or an honorable mention. We can’t decide.
“Holiday Inn” paired Bing Crosby with Fred Astaire as a duo of song and dance guys who get involved with trying to make a go of a special Inn that opens only during holidays. Hence the title. Get it? And yes, it’s likely that the eponymous hotel chain derived its name from this film.
“Holiday Inn” is distinctive because it was the first film appearance of the signature song for both films, Irving Berlin’s immortal “White Christmas.” As sung by Crosby, the song has remained a sentimental Christmas favorite ever since, evoking warm cozy memories of all those wonderful Christmas Pasts that reside firmly in our generally idyllic childhood memories, or, sometimes, in our memories of Christmasas that might have been.
Bing transforms Berlin’s tune into a nostalgic hymn that’s not, perhaps, a true recollection of our own past Christmas holidays, but how we all wish those holidays had been and how we hope that they will be during Christmas seasons yet to come.
Crosby knows how to deliver the goods. Tempo, phrasing, even his character’s persona are perfect. At least for those of a certain age, particularly on a dark, snowy, lonely night when Christmas lights can be seen flickering in the distance, listening to Bing croon his way through this classic song can still bring a wistful tear to the eye. Not surprisingly, his recording of this song, along with other Christmas classics, is still a best-seller on CD, and probably even on downloads these days.
The magic of the song become all the more astonishing when you realize that this quintessential modern Christmas classic was actually penned by a Jewish composer.
The film “White Christmas” is in many ways a 1954 remake of the earlier film. It’s usually the one we see on TV today during the holidays. A quirky but very talented Danny Kaye stepped into the Fred Astaire role, joining Crosby in this film which, given the still-powerful popularity of Berlin’s Christmas tune, adopted its title as its own.
The story line of the 1954 film is altered in some significant ways from the original “Holiday Inn,” giving it a still highly relevant World War II backstory that gives the main plot a patriotic lift.
“White Christmas” proved an instant and enduring hit film. Both the plot and sentiment proved hugely appealing to a Greatest Generation that was on the make at last, having endured a lifetime of Depression followed by WWII and even the recently concluded Korean conflict.
Here’s the final production number from that film. Appropriately, it’s a grand reprise of Berlin’s hit. Everyone joins in with Crosby, Kaye, their best girls, and the entire crew of actors, singers, and ex-GIs, bringing “White Christmas” home again at last.
Pull out your hankies. This is a unified, patriotic America the likes of which we may never see or feel ever again. It will be missed.
Next up: We get to the second half of our Top 10 Christmas film list, aka, the Top 5 all time best Christmas movies. We report. We decide. But feel free to add your comments and personal faves below.