By Paula R. Stiles
Ahhh, Christmas television. A time of heart-warming classics, filled to the brim with murder, insanity, home invasion, grand theft, exile, suicide, fascist repression, bank foreclosure, and various forms of persecution and bullying. Yup. These little classics are downright uplifting.
But aside from the darkness in a lot of these tales, they’re all fantastic in nature. There is something about Christmas that encourages speculative fiction over that of any other genre. The most famous classic of them all is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, about which I wrote for Fantasy Magazine last December. That might have something to do with it. Or it might be the power that the winter solstice (and its attendant festivals) holds over us. In the darkest days of the winter, we tell tales of light and hope (and subversive humour). Because, as much as the darkness, these stories all contain hope.
When the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966): We all know this story: the Grinch, a green, grumpy old grouch, lives up on a mountain while down in the valley, the Whos of Whoville noisily get ready for Christmas. The Grinch, masquerading as Santa, comes down off the mountain in the dead of night and steals all of their Christmas cheer so that they’ll all be weeping and wailing come Christmas morning. But to his surprise, they come out singing to a bright star in the town square, instead. Touched, his shriveled heart grows three sizes, and he comes back down the mountain blowing a trumpet. The Whos gladly take him in and he is guest of honour at their Christmas feast.
This bare-bones-animation, Warner-Bros-style cartoon (with all the attendant jokey visual style) is obvious fantasy of the Dr. Seussian variety. It’s a deceptively simple fable. None of the players are even human. How the Grinch got up the mountain is never explained. He’s just always been there. It’s even stated that he enjoys being miserable and gets off on making others miserable, too, and all about 40 years before House. It’s strangely timeless, which adds to its mystery, a lesson the atrocious live-action version in 2000 with Jim Carrey completely missed.
This tale is nicely balanced between corrosive meanness and subversive sweetness. I’m sure it was no coincidence that Boris Karloff was approached for the narration (which he does to fussy and snarky perfection). He was still famous for his early Universal horror roles and it was just the kind of sinister touch director Chuck Jones (of Bugs Bunny fame) would think worked. Worked it did.
The Grinch really does a number on the Whos. At first look, it doesn’t seem like much of a contest – the mean old Grinch versus “Cindy-Lou Who, who was only two”. But he ultimately loses because he doesn’t “get” the Whos. He thinks they’re clannish and materialistic (a major error of the Carrey version is to really make them that way). That’s his excuse for treating them badly and playing what is really the biggest and meanest holiday practical joke ever on them. But they just take it in stride. The real meaning of Christmas for them is something he can’t steal, and when he does bring back all their nice stuff, they just take him in, smiling. It’s probably the best illustration of the philosophy of non-violent resistance for a child out there. Considering Seuss’ politics, his willingness to use those politics in his stories, and the times, that’s probably no coincidence. Grinch came out in the middle of the Cold War, when the Vietnam War was starting to run hot and long, the Civil Rights Movement was losing steam, and the grinches of the world seemed to be winning. Seuss gives us a story where the grinches lose and are converted into whos. And 43 years later, that lesson keeps on giving.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964): I want to say that I love Rudolph in all its screwed-up glory and still think it’s a classic. But oh, man, what kind of psychotic people-pleasers wrote this one? It’s directed by Kizo Nagashima, who was also the production supervisor on Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, and that really shows in the style of the stop-motion animation (which is quite detailed, with lots of little visual jokes). Nagashima did a few other things around the same time, then dropped out of sight. Such a shame, as we might have ended up with some more stop-motion holiday specials that didn’t suck. For example, there were at least two sequels to this classic – Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976) and Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979) – that are probably best forgotten.
Again, this is a very familiar story, not least because it’s based on a popular Christmas song of the same name written in 1939. Rudolph is feared and made fun of since birth due to a weird birth defect – he has a nose that glows bright red. His parents hide it as best they can and he even manages to go to the reindeer tryouts wearing a fake black nose. He meets a pretty doe, Clarice, there. In his happiness over her agreeing to a date (gotta love the mighty power of puberty), he flies and impresses Santa. Unfortunately, when he lands, his fake nose falls off, everyone laughs at him and cuts him dead, and he runs away from home in humiliation. He meets up with an elf named Hermey who is also running away because he wants to become a dentist not a toymaker. They run into intrepid prospector Yukon Cornelius (hey, red-beared canucks rule, man) and have many adventures running from (and occasionally chasing) the Abominable Snowman, before landing on the now-famous Island of Misfit Toys. Eventually, they come home, are rather grudgingly accepted and Rudolph unexpectedly becomes a hero when Santa (a little slow on the count in this story) realises the value of a shining-red nose in a snowstorm. See, kids? Reindeer mutations caused by polar radiation levels from Soviet open-air nuclear testing in the 50s and 60s in Siberia can be useful.
Even as a kid, I got the lessons about bullying loud and clear, but I was never quite satisfied that the “misfits” had to play nice to get accepted back rather than doing a Romy and Michelle and learning not to care what characters like Dasher and his Hitler Youth deer squad thought. I mean, is reindeer society at the North Pole super-creepy intolerant, or what? Elf society’s not much better. You’d think Santa would do something about it, but if his initial reaction to Rudolph’s nose is any indication, he’s part of the problem not the solution.
Apparently, the scene where Rudolph and Co. arrive at the Island of Misfit Toys at the end to fulfill Rudolph’s promise wasn’t even in the original. It had to be inserted after viewers complained that just leaving them there made Santa look like a jerk (well…a bigger jerk than he is already for most of the story). I never did get why Santa and his elves would deliberately make defective toys and then let them be abandoned on some island, anyway, but I gotta say, King Moonracer looks even cooler now than he did when I was a kid.
There’s some wicked satire of 50s and 60s high-school sports culture in the “reindeer games” sequence and a macabre crack about the “Donner Party“. Not so funny are the miniskirted girl elves who never speak and the does who exist only to cheer on the young bucks at the tryouts and pop out more little fawns. No does on Santa’s sleigh-ride team. Yeah, I know what it was like back then for women, but that doesn’t make it look any better now. Still, it’s tough to get too upset when you’ve got Burl Ives singing “Silver and Gold” and looking like an enormous snowman with an umbrella.
Frosty the Snowman (1969): A magician named Professor Hinkle comes to a school one day to do his magic act. His act sucks so badly that he throws away in frustration the one magical item he possesses – a black top hat, complete with rebellious white rabbit. Meanwhile, the kids he bored in the classroom are outside playing. They’re making a snowman when the rabbit comes bounding up and gives them the hat. When they put it on his head, the snowman comes to life and declares, “Happy Birthday!” He leads the kids in a big parade around town, but the fun is cut short by a warm spell. The one girl in the group, Karen, offers to go to the North Pole in a boxcar with him. There, he’ll be safe. But Karen starts to get really cold and Frosty rushes her into a greenhouse to warm her and save her life. Neither of them anticipates Professor Hinkle coming along and locking them in so Frosty will melt. Seems Hinkle, realising his hat is magical, wants it back. It’s Santa to the rescue!
This cartoon was made by the same folks who did Rudolph and it sort of shows. The drawings are crude and the storyline frequently makes no sense (not least because Frosty is only half as long as Rudolph). Frosty is not the sharpest tool in the shed and Karen is both blonde and too cute for words (there’s this weird King Kong vibe going between them throughout the story). Yet there is a sort of magic there, much like Frosty’s hat. Who can resist Jimmy Durante’s memorable narration or that anarchic-yet-innocent dance through town?
I was bummed as a kid when Frosty melted in the greenhouse, due to his loyalty to Karen and Professor Hinkle’s treachery. Billy De Wolfe as the good (bad) Professor also had some memorable lines (“Messy, messy, messy!”). I always found myself wondering if Frosty remembered what he’d done before for Karen when they rebuilt and re-hatted him, or if that Frosty was gone forever. No, not the greatest philosophical question in history, but a pretty heavy thought for a kid.
Avoid Frosty Returns (1992). It’s a crass, joyless rehash of the original.
Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970): A bunch of recluses take in an abandoned baby. The only clue to his identity is a small tag on his clothing with the word “Claus”. They name the boy “Kris Kringle” and he grows up to be a toymaker. The only problem is that the Burgermeister in the next town over has long decreed that kids can’t have toys. Kris decides that’s not fair and starts bringing kids toys for Christmas. A young schoolteacher named Jessica joins him in his big rebellion and eventually becomes Mrs. Claus. All the elements of the secular Santa story are there: why he goes down the chimney, why he fills stockings (and why they sometimes have coal when you’re bad), why he wears a beard, why he’s dressed in red, why his reindeer fly, and so on. None of them really fits historical folklore, but did I care when I was a kid? Lord, no.
Filmed in stop-animation like Rudolph, this shares a lot of the same laid-back, passive-aggressive values. Kringle doesn’t actively do anything to the Burgermeister and his successors. He just outlives them all (one of his superpowers appears to be immortality). It’s a pretty bloodless revolution, though you couldn’t tell that from the way the Burgermeister froths and carries on. It also has a similar antagonist-turned-ally to Rudolph in the wizard, though the wizard loses his magic after he turns good. Apparently, the only good monster in these stories is a defanged one (literally, in the case of Rudolph). This special is different from other American Christmas classics in that it’s set in a different culture (Bavaria, from the looks of it) than the usual American one. Even Rudolph‘s North Pole is pretty American in culture. The portrayal of this foreign culture is presented fairly negatively, not least because positive characters like Kris and the Postman who narrates Kris’ story are voiced by Americans Mickey Rooney and Fred Astaire respectively while negative characters like the Burgermeister and his lackeys sport heavy accents. On the other hand, it is nice to see a Christmas story that doesn’t claim the holiday was somehow invented in the United States. And it does give the tale a certain historical depth.
The Little Drummer Boy (1968): Speaking of past foreign cultures, I loved this stop-animation story by the same folks who made Rudolph, etc. when I was a kid because it was set in the Middle East and I loved Bible stories. I didn’t love Bible stories because I was particularly holier-than-thou, mind you, but because they were set in really exotic places and long, long ago. Good luck finding The Little Drummer Boy, though, since it never seems to be on (allegedly, ABCFamily will have it on the 8th at 8pm [correction, according to IMDB, it will be at 7am on the 12th, instead. Get up early to catch it]).
Aaron is a happy little kid in Judea about two thousand years ago. One day, bandits invade his farm and murder his father. His mother shoves him out the window while they burn the house down around her and he escapes. Harsh? You betcha. Sure made my jaw drop when I first saw it. Kidnapped and enslaved, Aaron has nothing but a small drum and animals for company. He is bitter and angry about his parents’ death (not exactly a surprise). One day, he arrives in a town called Bethlehem and hears from some wise men that the Messiah has been born. He doesn’t care…at least, not until one of his animal friends, a lamb, is run over by a chariot. In desperation, Aaron goes to visit the baby (Jesus, of course), and discovers a newborn in even worse poverty than he is. Moved to pity, and upset about his friend, Aaron plays his drum for the baby Jesus to soothe him, since he has nothing else to offer. Miraculously, the lamb is raised from the dead and Aaron is suddenly filled with joy and hope after so many years of darkness.
This is religious fantasy, of course. Historical, too. That may be why it’s also one of the few popular Christmas specials where the human characters aren’t blindingly white (and blonde and blue-eyed, half the time, too). The scene where Aaron plays for the baby makes me cry every time. This story doesn’t screw around. Just because it’s fantasy doesn’t mean it has some tacked-on uplifting ending. Aaron’s parents don’t pop up from the grave, happy and whole again. He’s not raised up to become a rich man in the best place in town. The miracle that happens for him (the raising of his sheep friend) is limited but also hugely significant.
Some people may complain that it’s too “religious” (the point isn’t to shove any particular religion down your throat, anyway) or too “dark” for children. Yes, it’s religious. Yes, it’s dark. But that’s all set-up for the wonderful and moving ending. Sometimes, you have to start with a really dark story to get the necessary depth from which you can rise up at the end. This one is a brilliant example of that.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): Speaking of dark stories…whoa. How many parents vetted this one? This Frank Capra fantasy wasn’t necessarily made for kids. It’s the tale of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a guy who aspires to travel and become a great and famous hero (though he might settle for traveling a lot). Through the years, he grows up, saving various people, marrying a wonderful woman and having wonderful kids. Two things he never manages, though. He never manages to do more than struggle financially (he runs a savings and loan inherited from his dad that is the direct rival of the villain of the piece, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore)) and he never fulfills his dream of travel. In fact, I’m not sure he ever gets more than a few hours away from his home town. Even when WWII comes, he can’t get drafted because he doesn’t pass the physical.
Disaster strikes when George’s idiot lush of an uncle, Billy, loses a large amount of money that they owed Potter’s bank (Billy misplaces it at Potter’s bank and Potter, the rotter, hides it). Facing disgrace and serious jail time, George goes to the town bridge, intent on committing suicide. But there, he meets this angel named Clarence, who needs to earn his wings. Clarence decides to show George what life would have been like if he had never been born.
This one gets really overplayed, not just at Christmastime but other times of the year. Which I probably wouldn’t mind if the huge, non-fantastical grind of years on George didn’t make me wait so long for Clarence and his grim alternate-timeline twist to show up. Yes, okay, it gets dark and then it gets uplifting and it’s been copied a million times by every TV show out there. We get it, already. But the lesson when George decides he loves his life after all because his little town sucked so badly without him feels a little creepy. Doesn’t that make George the town’s No. 1 codependent? What, nobody else could choose to be heroic and self-sacrificing without George’s influence? I get that this is meant to show that we have a big influence on each other, but what about anybody who isn’t named “George Bailey”?
I also have to admit that neither Capra nor Stewart ever did much for me. There was always something about them both that put me off a bit, and the two of them together nearly puts me into a diabetic coma. Still, there’s no denying that It’s a Wonderful Life is both well-made and a classic of Christmas fantasy. And it’s hard to hate a film that some pencil-pusher at the FBI deemed “communist” (when it came out) because it took a dig at fat-cat banks, especially this year.
The Wizard of Oz (1939): Dorothy (Judy Garland) is a Kansas farm girl who decides to run away one afternoon to save her dog Toto from a local bully, Elmira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton in a triple role with the best evil cackle, ever). She changes her mind when a tornado blows up and arrives back too late to get into the root cellar with the others. Yanked up in the house by the tornado, she crashes in the magical land of Oz. There, she’s hailed as a powerful sorceress and hero after accidentally landing on the evil Ms. Gulch, who was none other than the Wicked Witch of the East. Unfortunately, this makes a mortal enemy of Gulch’s sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, who swears to kill Dorothy, both for revenge and to get the magic red slippers that Dorothy just inherited. Dorothy’s only hope of getting home is to visit the Wizard of Oz by following the Yellow Brick Road. Fortunately, her kindness and generosity gather her three loyal friends along the way. But will the Wizard be as advertised?
The Wizard of Oz is not cynical so much as powered by an undercurrent of righteous anger that has been tapped by later versions by other authors. L. Frank Baum had a lot of fat-cat targets in his sights when he wrote the book. The film was supposed to be “dumbed down” for the kids and has become a Christmas classic due to its supposed inoffensiveness (even though it’s not connected to the holiday in either theme or plot). However, the stories of its behind-the-scenes troubles have enhanced the lingering darkness of the original material. At any rate, a film that involves terrifying witches, con-artist wizards, fields full of narcotic flowers, death watches, creepy flying monkeys, and the melting death (however accidental) of the main villain at the hands of the stalwart heroine will inevitably be on the subversive side.
On the other hand, a lot of Oz‘s attraction stems from the stunning sets once the film switches from sepiatone to technicolor and the enthusiasm with which the actors throw themselves into their roles. You believe they’re in Oz because they believe they’re in Oz. Not even a return to “reality” with an “it was all a dream” ending (which is a bit of a cheat) reduces the level of fantasy. That’s how strongly Oz comes across as a place in the film. Even if it’s not real, it should be, and that’s what classic fantasy is all about.
Scrooged (1988): Nasty TV network boss Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is all wound up over his pet project, a huge production of A Christmas Carol called “Scrooge“, which is being broadcast live from points all over the world and advertised with absolutely terrifying ads. He shortchanges his long-suffering African-American assistant, Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard), of a much-needed Christmas bonus and gives his amiable younger brother, James (Murray’s real-life brother, John), a towel for a present. Even worse, he fires a young network underling Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwaite), with a wife and baby daughter, right before Christmas for having the temerity to question one of his decisions. Before you can say “Christmas goose”, Frank is being plagued by a slimy rival for his job (John Glover), visited by his dead boss (John Forsythe) and harassed by the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future. And a truly depressing past, present and future they all are. The only possible saving grace (aside from his brother) is a hippy ex-girlfriend, Claire (Karen Allen), who got ditched on the way up the corporate ladder and now works at a homeless shelter.
A lot of this is played for laughs – very, very dark laughs. Carol Kane stands out as the sadistic Ghost of Christmas Present, who beats Frank up every chance she gets (“Oh, look, Frank! It’s a TOASTER!” [BONK!]). The parodies of the network’s other Christmas specials are hysterically macabre, like Lee Majors’ North-Pole action flick, The Night the Reindeer Died, or Robert Goulet’s Cajun Christmas, with Goulet being stalked through the bayou by a hungry gator. Underneath it all is a cold, hard view of New York. We get to contrast the chilly, metallic halls of the network building with icy sidewalks and Claire’s homeless shelter. Both worlds are equally depressing.
What really make the film are two things: the acting and the unapologetic ramping up of the dark fantasy elements. Murray is consistently funny and believable throughout, making the sappy, goofy ending hard-won but worth it. But he’s also backed up by an able cast. Woodard has fun with her downtrodden office dogsbody (who, for once, isn’t automatically white). Nobody has ever whined so sardonically and sympathetically. Goldthwaite goes to town, especially in the scene where Loudermilk stalks Frank through an empty office on Christmas Eve with a shotgun, singing cracked Christmas carols and quoting Elmer Fudd. Allen throws herself into what should have been a thankless girlfriend role with a wicked grin. And then, of course, there’s Kane, who makes you laugh while simultaneously ducking and running for cover. But who would have thought Glover and Forsythe could bring it in the comic-timing department, too? Even Robert Mitchum, as Frank’s nutty, cat-obsessed uberboss, has some great moments, mostly involving his kooky ideas about stealth sales of cat food directly to cats.
The film also throws a lot of FX at the screen and most of it sticks. Forsythe’s moldy boss has some evil jokes (a mouse and a golfball coming out of his skull). The Ghost of Christmas Future with Hell inside his ribs is seriously scary. The scene with the dead homeless guy and the watch is creepy (though not quite as creepy as the cremation scene in the future scenario). Most everyone in the film thinks Frank is nuts, but we know he’s not, and this enhances the power of the message that he needs to change his ways. Funny, often wickedly dark, but ultimately warmhearted and hopeful, Scrooged is one of my holiday favourites.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947): Macy’s, the famous department store in New York City, is hiring store Santas for the Christmas season. A jolly old man by the name of Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) hires on after reporting a drunken Santa at the Macy’s Christmas Parade. Unfortunately, his apparent obsession with playing Santa Claus (including listing his address as the North Pole) leads to an altercation with a fellow store employee (who is trying to brainwash a child into not believing in Santa Claus) and his commitment to a mental hospital. Wow. Not too harsh.
Kringle’s boss, Doris (Maureen O’Hara), initially believes this commitment is fair. Bitter from a nasty divorce, she has become a hard-headed cynic who has indoctrinated her daughter, Susan (a very young Natalie Wood), with a deep skepticism that shuts out all magic in life – especially Santa Claus. But Kringle’s passionate lawyer, Fred (John Payne), gives Kringle a fiery defense in the courtroom and slowly starts to melt Doris’ heart romantically, while Kringle works his holiday healing magic on Susan. Needless to say, the film is really about the battle over the hearts and minds of Doris and Susan (and, by extension, the children of America), not over whether Santa Claus should be locked away in an insane asylum.
I’m not going to argue with anyone over whether this is a deserved classic that still shines despite later remakes. The satire on the commercialising of Christmas remains as wicked as ever, as is the criticism of narrow and rigid American views of “sane” and “crazy”, which haven’t loosened up all that much in 62 years. I also like the message that faith in Good is important, even if the pagan (sorry, secular) skeptics who must be converted are both female and the faithful doing the converting are both men. It beats the usual thing where women are presented as the emotional and irrational ones. Besides, I love O’Hara and her feisty on-screen persona in just about anything she does, and Gwenn is perfect as Kringle.
But as fantasy, this doesn’t quite satisfy. First, the definitions of “rational” and “reality” in this film are ludicrous. Who cares if Kringle thinks he’s the real Santa Claus as long as he plays the part appropriately, inspires the kids and doesn’t hurt anyone? Sure, he bonks fellow employee Sawyer over the head, but Sawyer was doing harm to a kid by practicing psychiatry without a license. I’d’ve bonked him a lot harder.
Second, Miracle on 34th Street wants to have its Christmas fruit cake and eat it, too. Like another fantasy classic from the same period, Harvey (1950), it makes you guess whether the main character is crazy or not. This works a lot better in Harvey than in Miracle, because the people around Jimmy Stewart’s juicer protag, Elwood P. Dowd, are as eccentric as he is in their own ways. That film also gives us a lot of hints all along that we are in a fantastic universe (not least Stewart’s amazing and narrow escapes from all sorts of trouble). In Miracle, we’re told right off the bat that insisting you’re Santa Claus when you’re not (though the criteria for the “real” Santa Claus aren’t ever clearly defined) is crazy and means you have to be locked up. So, you’d think establishing whether Kringle is who he claims to be would be…you know…important. But apparently not. This is why I classify Miracle as one of those “fantasy for people who hate fantasy” stories. Some people can only hack magic at this time of year. Too bad for them, but worse for those who reject all magic out of hand all year round, I suppose.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965): Poor old Charlie Brown. He never can catch a break, and he doesn’t really catch one in this Peanuts special, either. Charlie starts off the show depressed at the rampant commercialism of Christmas. This wasn’t a new theme even in 1965 (Miracle on 34th Street had tackled the same theme two decades before), but A Charlie Brown Christmas is still one of the best stories on it. Unable to convince anyone else about his misgivings, Charlie tries to reconcile himself to the season by participating in the school pageant, which is an Advent play. He’s given the task of buying a Christmas tree that will act as a major prop for the play. However, when he reaches the lot, he sees a small, forlorn tree that no one else wants and buys it on impulse. His classmates are (unsurprisingly) furious with him and make fun of him. When even Snoopy gets in on it, Charlie quits in frustration. Linus comes in, picks up the tree and straightens it out. The other children, relenting, also put decorations on it until it miraculously becomes tall, glittering and beautiful, whereupon, everyone (including Charlie Brown) realises the true meaning of Christmas and they burst into song together.
Like the Grinch, this is a near-perfect little Christmas story. My favourite bits (and I’m probably not alone) are the entire sequence with the tree, which is so ugly-duckling-to-beautiful-swan that it makes me sniffle every time, and Linus’ speech reciting from the Bible about the birth of the baby Jesus. A Charlie Brown Christmas doesn’t lecture us about the “true meaning of Christmas”, it shows us, which allows us to come together while also drawing our own conclusions. It’s also a sweet antidote to that rampant commercialism Charlie Brown hates so much.
I’ve heard a rumour that this year’s broadcast (on December 8 and 15 at 8pm) may cut Linus’ speech lest it “offend” someone with its religious content. I hope that’s not true because, if it is, somebody at ABC has really missed the point of this special.
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