I’ve called it.
This weekend, I’m allowing us all to start watching Christmas films.
Not all at once. Build up steadily. A few days ago a comedian pal tweeted a screenshot of her spreadsheet: A Muppet Christmas Carol and Elf are saved till Christmas Eve, It’s a Wonderful Life and Get Santa are scheduled for early December. I might kick off this weekend with Die Hard.
But do you know which classic movie was based on a Christmas card, and may be responsible for a lot of asbestos poisoning? Which Santa film was released in May? Which action film was a literary sequel, meant to be starring Frank Sinatra?
The most fun I had writing my new Christmas book was delving into twentieth century pop culture – although it’s worrying that now counts as ‘history’. We’ll save festive telly and pop songs for another time, but here for your viewing pleasure (and viewing planning pleasure) is my countdown of the Undisputed Greatest Christmas Films of All Time (and some stories behind them).
15. Jingle All the Way… Arnie’s finest. Alright his finest Christmas movie. Alright his only Christmas movie. American cinema has always done the “Christmas shopping” film far better than Britain, because they do the consumer Christmas better than anyone. When Britain tried it… well 1954’s shop-based The Crowded Day wasn’t memorable.
14. The Polar Express… This was the world’s first all-digital capture film. And it kinda shows. I mean, how many Tom Hankses do we need to see in a film? Actually with the state the world (and Hollywood) is in, maybe just cloning Tom Hanks a few dozen times is the best we can hope for in a film.
13. Miracle on 34th Street… This Santa-based classic had an unusual May theatrical release, since the studio doubted that Christmas would yield much box office. To lure summer moviegoers in, the original posters and trailer hid all the festive elements – even though the entire plot concerns one Kris Kringle claiming to be the real Santa Claus.
12. The Sound of Music/The Great Escape/The Wizard of Oz… Say what now? Christmas? Well, they’re always on the schedules. In fact it’s only through Christmas repeats on TV that some of these garnered classic status. Alright, none of them have anything to do with Christmas, but somehow it wouldn’t feel festive without someone (a nun/Steve McQueen) being chased by Nazis, or a virginal singer (Dorothy/Maria) surrounded by little people (Munchkins/the Von Trapps). Yes I’m lumping these films together, so they can be watched in one easy 10-hour session.
11. Gremlins… We’d had Bing Crosby. We’d had schmaltz. By 1984 we were ready for something more, well, 1984y. George Orwell thought there’d be a Big Brother and a Room 101 and the Thought Police (he was just a couple of decades out) – so surely our Christmas films can take a darker turn? Gremlins certainly did. You might recognise many of the sets – Kingston Falls, the cinema – from Back to the Future, which was shot just after with a bit of a redesign.
10. Scrooged… Early festive cinema was dominated by remakes of A Christmas Carol. The first adaptation was just a generation after Dickens’ death, and we can’t stop making it ever since. Only this Christmas, you can know see in cinemas the story behind it in The Man who Invented Christmas (more on that in the next blog post). Alastair Sim’s Scrooge was pretty definitive, but Bill Murray did a cracking job at reinventing the character for the 1980s, giving Ebenezer a gentle nudge from miser to cynic.
9. Bad Santa… Things got properly cynical by this film’s release, though if your heart was softer, you could have seen Elf or Love Actually in cinemas at the same time. (Wow, moviegoers were spoilt that Christmas.) Jack Nicholson was first to be signed up for the lead role, then Bill Murray… when they both dropped out for other roles, Billy Bob Thornton stepped in – and claims to have been largely drunk throughout.
8. Home Alone… The highest-grossing live action comedy of all time (until The Hangover II came along). The team behind it met on another festive film: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Roger Ebert’s review on release noted that the film contained “the kinds of traps that any 8-year-old could devise, if he had a budget of tens of thousands of dollars and the assistance of a crew of movie special effects people”. Fair point.
7. Joyeux Noel… My pick for Best Christmas film You’ve Probably Never Heard Of. It’s in French, English and German and tells the story of the Christmas truce, that we talked about in the last post on this very blog (that wasn’t an intentional last post pun, but I’m leaving it in).
6. Holiday Inn… The film that spawned an industry – not just heralding future festive film releases, but also containing Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’. Don’t be fooled by TV schedules trying to get you to watch Bing in White Christmas – that’s the sequel. Go for the original. Irving Berlin wrote the famous ditty – now the world’s bestselling of all time – in tribute to his snowy Colorado home, that he was missing being stuck in Hollywood for Christmas.
5. Love Actually… I saw this film twice in the cinema – once with some cynical friends, and I agreed with them it was rubbish, and again with some upbeat friends and I realised all the good stuff I missed first time round. I’m clearly easily led. The very first copy of my Christmas book to reach me was the same morning I bumped into Colin Firth at a radio studio, so I gave him the first copy. “Can I give you the first ever copy of this… because you’re in it…” I said. He replied: “Oh of course! The history of Christmas? Yes, I must be in it for Love Actually.” I assured him no. “Oh, for Bridget Jones then? Because I started that Christmas jumper craze…” Finally I told him he’s in the book because of The King’s Speech, which doesn’t mention Christmas, but George VI’s reluctance to stammer through a royal Christmas message – then his will to continue anyway – was worth including.
4. Elf… A fine fun film. Buddy’s 12-second belch was a real belch, provided by the guy who voiced ‘The Brain in Pinky and The Brain. That’s all he did for the film.
3. Die Hard… Weirdly this is a Christmas movie, and weirdly Frank Sinatra was earmarked for the John McClane role – after all he played the role in the original. Yup, this is technically a sequel to 1966’s The Detective, and based on the book Nothing Lasts Forever. Arnie was offered the lead role too, before eventually they gave Bruce Willis ago – at the time he was mostly a TV comedy actor. Looks like he was worth a shot…
2. It’s a Wonderful Life… Frank Capra’s classic began life as a short story in 1939 – writer Philip Van Doren Stern struggled to publish it, so turned it into a Christmas card of all things… which handily ended up on the desk of a Hollywood producer. The movie made a loss on its 1947 release, and like many other festive favourites, it took another two or three decades to become a fixture of Christmas TV schedules. One innovation from Capra’s film was a new snow effect. Till now, movie snow largely had been comprised of corn flakes painted white – a little crunchy underfoot. So Capra instead threw 27,000 litres of a soapy foamite substance at a wind machine. Fake snow became big business at homes across the Western world, especially since Bing’s “White Christmas” popularised the idea when there was little snowfall to be seen. Unfortunately a lot of the early mixtures were made from rather lethal asbestos.
1. The Muppet Christmas Carol… Up against Home Alone 2 at the festive box office, this certifiable classic may be the only version of Dickens’ book we ever need. It’s pretty true to the book too, thanks to Gonzo and Rizzo’s narration filling in all lots of the prose. It was also the first Muppet film after Jim Henson’s death, so the debut of new Kermit actor Steve Whitmire. No pressure then…
(Oh and it’s the best Christmas film of all time.)
Have I missed out your favourite? Sorry. Add it in the comments because you’re probably right… (oh and make sure you’ve got a copy of Hark! The Biography of Christmas in case your TV breaks over Christmas).