When seeking festive film fare amidst the rush of the holiday season, I often find myself turning to the comforting convenience that is the Hallmark Channel’s December programming. Well this year I’m determined to avoid watching Ernest Borgnine in A Grandpa for Christmas (2007) for the hundredth time and, although ever so tempting, I won’t be tuning in this Saturday for the premiere of A Princess for Christmas, which stars Sir Roger Moore and is directed by Michael “Rock On” Damian (the former pop/soap star also co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Janeen, and together they are additionally responsible for Flicka 2, Marley and Me: The Puppy Years, and the upcoming Flicka 3). Instead, I’ll be filling my Netflix cue with the Christmas movie recommendations of a sleighful of Cinedelphia’s favorite local film-types. Their selections vary in both genre and taste, but the one thing that these angels, misers, and axe-wielding psychopaths (the film characters, not the locals) have in common is a connection to the most wonderful time of the year. So gather your loved ones by the LCD and join us as we get into the holiday spirit.
When I was a student at Penn State Ogontz—yes, Abington campus was once called Ogontz—I took a popular culture course. We got to read The Maltese Falcon and The Godfather but the book that made the biggest impression on me was a collection of stories by Jean Shepherd. The year was 1983 and it happened to be the same year that A Christmas Story was released.
Now a perennial cable movie during the holiday season, A Christmas Story came out at a time when, believe it or not, Holiday movies were not an event. In fact, after being released on Thanksgiving it was already out of most venues by Christmas. However, it stayed in 100 theaters through January 1984 and slowly but surely built a following: grossing $19mil+ for a movie with a budget of $4mil.
Directed and adapted by Bob Clark—yes, he of Porky’s fame!—the wit and wisdom of Jean Shepherd is brought to life partly because, well, Jean Shepherd narrates the movie himself and partly due to the perfect casting of the central family, the Parkers.
Peter Billingsley plays Ralphie Parker, the young, fictionalized Jean Sheperd. Some of you who are my age may remember him as Messy Marvin, the infamous Hershey Syrup icon. Clark auditioned a lot of child actors because he thought Billingsley was too obvious. Then he realized that there was a reason for this: he was perfect for the part!
The situations are heightened and border on the surreal, the family dynamics are conventional but given incredible gusto and an edge by the great performances of Melinda Dillon and always engaging Darren McGavin as the mom and dad of the Parker clan from Hammond, Indiana. The dialogue, full of direct passages from some of Shepherd’s best loved stories, is crisp and memorable: I think I must have used the phrase “I double dog dare you” more than a few times and, if you ask my roommates at the time, more than is ever needed or appropriate.
Nostalgia, youth, and the magic of the holiday season are married to the bizarreness of waiting on line for a fake Santa and his pushy elves, the destruction of the holiday meal by a pack of dogs and the pivotal utterance of the word “Fudge”…only he didn’t really say “Fudge”—ok, you really need to see the movie if you don’t know what I mean!
Jean Shepherd’s stories were fantastic slices of life and his narration imparts an excitement and appreciation of life’s ups and downs. A Christmas Story is a great testament to a master storyteller and a talented director who got it just right.
Executive Director, Hiway Theatre
I’m Jewish and they don’t make Hanukkah movies so I guess that’s why I prefer to watch It’s a Wonderful Life when it tw-isn’t the season but I’ll really take it anytime. Before youse moan and groan about the broad nature of my choice, think about it: When was the last time you saw this movie? Because it’s the sexiest goddamned Christmas movie you’ll ever see. Check the scene where Jimmy Stewart breathlessly eyes at Donna Reed, and vice versa, as her boyfriend rambles on the phone about soy beans of all things. They barely speak but you can cut the sexual tension with a knife as they switch off staring longingly at each other. And then he tries to convince her it will never work! Because he’s married to the credit union! And then they kiss in that passionate way that only seems to be sexy in movies made during the Hayes Code. If that doesn’t make you all warm and fuzzy on a cold Christmas night, I don’t know what will. But if I’m feeling a little more ornery on Christmas day, I tend toward Die Hard because there are few better Christmas lines than, “‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except…the four assholes coming in the rear in standard two-by-two cover formation.”
Reporter, Philadelphia Daily News
There has always been this unstated agreement that Thanksgiving would go to the backseat of the holiday car with Christmas, but Christmas was only allowed some heavy petting. Over the years, Christmas has gotten tired of not getting anywhere with Thanksgiving and has spurned that turkey and made a bold play for Halloween. Yeah, Christmas kind of sucks like that. But, back when I was kid, Christmas was only the magical few weeks between that late-November Thursday and December 25th. Those few weeks were a cornucopia of holiday delights. The greatest delight to me, in that pre-cable, pre-home video age, was catching the UHF airing of the musical Scrooge starring Albert Finney. I would scour the TV guide every week in anticipation of finding which channel would be showing it and when. It was that rare holiday season that it was on more than once and I would watch it every time it was on. Every. Damn. Time.
Now I know that adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol are a dime a dozen, but there was something special about this one in particular. Not only are the musical numbers great (FATHER CHRISTMAS!!), but the special effects are also top notch. Plus, the movie is genuinely creepy, which appealed to the horror lover in me. And, let’s not forget about the camptastic performances by British All-Stars Albert Finney and Sir Alec Guinness.
What I didn’t know at the time was that the film runs almost two hours, so when it was running on UHF in a two hour time slot, it was cut. What they cut was gold to me when I finally saw it. Though there was probably more missing, the two scenes that I immediately noticed both involved Marley’s ghost. The first is right after Marley appears for the first time and he takes Scrooge on a Christmas flight through the skies of Victorian London. Full of the gruesome souls of the damned, they are forced to wander the earth for eternity because of their sins!!!! The second is so ridiculous, it is no wonder it was cut. After the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his grave and shoves him into the gaping hole, the TV version would cut away to Scrooge waking up in bed. But, in the full version, Scrooge falls all the way to hell where he is greeted by Marley’s ghost who is leading a
procession of masked (but shirtless!) muscle men who are carrying a giant chain. Once they wrap this enormous chain around Scrooge (Hello, Marquis De Sade?), rats begin to gnaw at the feet of the helpless skinflint. But then he awakens, wrapped in his bed sheets…a changed man (and this is where the TV version would resume). Seeing these two
deleted scenes intact years after watching the movie literally a hundred times was one of the greatest movie going moments of my life and is still one of my all time favorite films for nostalgia’s sake, if nothing else.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention all of my other favorite A Christmas Carol adaptations.
Black Adder’s A Christmas Carol – The antithesis to the story in which the great Rowan Atkinson finds that if he wasn’t so nice, he would be much happier.
An American Christmas Carol – The Fonz learns that life isn’t all about wearing a leather jacket, bedding women, flirting with Mrs C and not eating liver.
Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol – The old blind guy does it again.
Any 80’s-era sitcom (e.g. Night Court) – Christmas wasn’t the same without some lazy sitcom writer plugging his characters into the same old Dickens plot time and time again.
A Christmas Carol (Patrick Stewart) – Captain Picard gives the old miser the full treatment in this great TV movie adaptation. (Stewart is also known for his one man stage show, which is excellent).
Co-founder, Exhumed Films; Co-owner, Diabolik DVD
The first thing I think of when Christmas starts to roll around is, I’m so glad I had a vasectomy. All subsequent thoughts regarding the holiday are along the same line. When the fragmentary ghost of a vision of a house with one or multiple human children strewing paper about then wallowing in mass-manufactured plastic crap passes through my fastidious and fascistic mind, I inwardly shudder. The only thing I dislike more than children is all the junk they are conditioned to covet. To be more precise, anything to do with Christmas makes me break out in a festering case of the bah-humbugs.
But that doesn’t stop me loving one element of the Christmas season: Christmas movies! Nothing stands my yule log on end like Rankin & Bass, the innumerable adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, or any tale of how ‘ole Kris Kringle came to be the beardy Santa we love so much. I’ve no time for ironic or nasty Santa movies. The level of detachment involved on the part of the viewer is something I find distasteful. Goofy-ass Mexican or Eastern European takes on Señor or Comrade Christmas have a place in my lump of coal heart, but it’s the British and American cinema classics that have wormed their way into my brain and turned me into a doddering old grandpa. Every year I host some select Christmas classics at my house that friends are invited to attend. The hottest ticket of the year, year after goddamn year, is the Ronald Neame 1970 musical Scrooge starring the all singing! all dancing! Albert Finney. I can state with no hesitation (but perhaps a modicum of embarrassment) that I’ve seen this film more than any other thanks to my yearly viewings. The wonderful Brian Desmond Hurst 1951 A Christmas Carol, with the note-perfect Alastair Sim as E. Scrooge, probably gets second-place for most viewings.
Scrooge is filled with songs of varying quality that will attach themselves to your braincells and run riot in your skull. The “Minister’s Cat” set piece will have you and your friends enacting Victorian party games at your next get-together at the Philly gastro pub or social protest of your choice. One of the film’s most bizarre set pieces is Old Ebenezer’s trip to Hell, which features a seriously “I Told You So”-ing Sir Alec Guinness as Jacob Marley’s heavily be-chained ghost and some devils in Tom of Finland leather fetish gear. As a kid, I never saw this late second act comeuppance for the fiscally conservative Social Darwinist Mr. Scrooge, as this whole segment was cut from broadcast prints, presumably to fit the film into a two-hour (with commercials) time-slot.
Scrooge is my pick for my favorite holiday moving because nothing tickles my sweet Fezziwigs more than a bunch of greasy/gross-haired British ‘70s stars and sorely-missed character actors singing holiday songs of joy and lament. Although Mr. Scrooge becomes a Jimmy Carter in the end, I still love the guy.
Joseph A. Gervasi
Co-founder, Exhumed Films; Co-owner, Diabolik DVD
Even though I don’t officially celebrate the holiday, I’ve always had a great fondness for Christmas. I love the lights, I love the music, I love the overall festive feeling in the air, and, of course, I love the movies. And these days we’re lucky if we get one Christmas movie a year. But when you talk about Christmas movies, I think it’s important to separate those that truly encompass Christmas from those that just happen to take place during Christmas time. To me, Die Hard and Trading Places aren’t Christmas movies. They’re great, but they just don’t embody Christmas. And while The Nightmare Before Christmas has “Christmas” in the title, it just doesn’t feel to me like a Christmas movie; it’s more of a Halloween movie. One of my favorite go-to Christmas films is Scrooged. It’s a great take on the classic A Christmas Carol story featuring Bill Murray at the top of his game. It’s funny, it’s creepy, it’s tragic, and it’s heartwarming. And most importantly it leaves you with that great Christmas feeling every time you see it.
FliederOnFilm.com; Film Critic, FOX 35
When it came to holiday programming in the late 1970s/early 1980s, few TV stations could compete with WWOR-TV, Channel 9, in New York City. I grew up in the Philly area, but could watch Channel 9 thanks to a miraculous new invention called “cable television” that the Baby Jesus brought to my house in December of 1978. Anyway, Channel 9 had the greatest Thanksgiving programming block of all time: each year on Thanksgiving Day, Channel 9 would run a triple feature–beginning at noon–of giant ape movies: the 1933 King Kong, followed by Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young. And if that wasn’t amazing enough, on the Friday following Thanksgiving they would run a triple feature of Godzilla movies. The lineup changed around a bit, but I definitely recall King Kong vs. Godzilla, Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster, and Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster being in the rotation. My lifelong obsession with giant monster movies–evidenced by the Godzilla tattoo sleeve occupying my right arm–can surely be traced back to Thanksgivings in front of the television set.
Of course, I was not asked to write about Thanksgiving movies, the topic at hand is Christmas. Once again, though, WWOR in NYC is the source of my all-time favorite Christmas movie. For it was on Channel 9 in the late ’70s that I discovered the wonders of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. This 1962 TV special pre-dates A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and essentially any other worthwhile children’s holiday special. And although it is only 53 minutes long, in my opinion this is the best filmed version of the Dickens classic. I’ve seen Alastair Sim, George C. Scott, Reginald Owen, Henry Winkler, Bill Murray, Albert Finney, and Scrooge McDuck, but Mr. Magoo is the best Scrooge by far. The special is funny without being silly, and actually keeps much of the original Dickens text intact. The scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Future are creepy and dark, and never pander to the children who might be traumatized at home. Add to this great voice work by Jim Backus and the amazing Paul Frees–as well as a really quality score by Broadway vets Jule Styne and Bob Merrill–and you have a bona fide Christmas classic, although one that has perhaps fallen into obscurity in recent years.
Co-founder, Exhumed Films
While I do enjoy Christmas I have never really been a fan of Christmas films in general. This is primarily due to the forced sentimental self-discovery that all of the protagonists must endure in order to “truly understand the true meaning of the holiday”. Take that Charlie Brown! So for holiday viewing I definitely lean towards horror films that take place during Christmas simply because they don’t take the holiday quite as seriously and self reflection is purely optional.
My favorite of these guilty holiday pleasures would have to be the genre classic Silent Night, Deadly Night. I still remember it as a child sitting on the video store shelf in its big box glory, forbidden from my grubby little mitts. It has everything you wouldn’t want in a Christmas film and that is probably why I enjoy it so much. I usually revisit the film once a year around the holidays to put things in perspective, because there’s nothing like an axe-welding psychotic Santa Claus chasing half naked teenagers to show you that the holidays should be fun, and that is what’s important.
Film Critic, Geekadelphia.com
It’s that time of year again. Everywhere, people are celebrating, drinking eggnog, and exchanging gifts. Cries of joy to the world and other gratuitous expressions of felicitation fill the air. Typically, seasonal Hollywood movies trumpet this hackneyed meme.
If you are a curmudgeonly cinephile, such holiday fare will inevitably exacerbate your extant sense of alienation from the human condition and plunge you into deep despair. Bad Santa is the film that can rescue you from such melancholy. It is a pitch black comedy, replete with a character even more miserable than you are.
Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton), the foul-mouthed protagonist of Bad Santa, makes Ebenezer Scrooge seem like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. He’s a font of unbridled bitterness. His modus vivendi consists of swigging Wild Turkey whiskey straight out of the bottle, random sexual encounters with strangers, intermittent fist fights, and doing jail time for his various escapades.
As holiday cheer prevails around him, Willie is sitting in a bar, caviling about his rotten childhood. His family never celebrated Christmas. His father’s idea of a holiday present was a punch to the back of young Willie’s head or extinguishing a lit cigarette on his son’s neck.
Willie did derive one thing of value from his father. Dear old dad taught him how to crack a safe. For the past eleven years, Willie has plied his skills, engaged in an annual scam. Each Christmas, he and his African-American dwarf cohort, Marcus (Tony Cox from Me, Myself & Irene), head to a new town. The criminal duo find a gig, working together in a department store as Santa and his merry elf. They exploit their jobs to case out the joint as a prelude to robbing the store’s safe.
The only problem is that Willie absolutely hates kids. Having them sit on his lap, whining about what they want for Christmas, constitutes absolute torture for him. In the lead role, Billy Bob Thornton is at his sardonic best, epitomizing the film’s misanthropic edge. As a consequence, Bad Santa offers a welcome antidote to the tsunami of ersatz goodwill headed your way during the holiday season.
Film Critic & Cultural Arts Correspondent, Montgomery Newspaper Chain
The music is still clanking around in the noggin as if it was…well, a few weeks ago.
It’s the theme song to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the 1964 kiddie films that’s become a cult classic for its awesome awfulness.
In ’64 when I was seven-years-old, it was anything but awful. I knew it was cheap—damn, they used Wham-O Air Blasters as weapons and the green makeup on some of the Martians began to rub off during some scenes. The reindeer looked chintzy. And that little girl—she couldn’t act.
Turns out that little girl in the film became more famous than anyone connected to the film: It was Pia Zadora. Even though she couldn’t act at this early age, this still may be the best performance of her career. And that includes her turns in The Lonely Lady and Butterfly.
Kids and their parents sure turned out to see the film on the first go-round in ’64. Commercials were being blitzed on the radio. It might have even been four-walled—the practice of a distributor renting a theater and collecting all the proceeds following a heavy radio and TV ad buy. Usually you knew this was the case when the out-of-town announcer on the commercial said “the film is opening this week in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Bala Sinwood.”
Certainly, the Orleans Theater in northeast Philly was packed to the gills with kids who wanted to see Santy encounter big and little green men. In fact, it was so crowded in the gigantic single screen auditorium—the place I would later see 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Dirty Dozen, a reissue of The Longest Day and Raquel Welch in a loincloth in One Million Years, B.C.—that some of the attendees were relegated to seating the fire marshal would no doubt frown upon: on the floor.
For authenticity’s sake, the film was shot in the land that epitomizes Christmas—Long Island. The story is simplistic but surprisingly works in a contemporary context. Martians are worried. Their children seem to be watching too much TV, beamed from Earth. The Mars kids are not really allowed to have frivolous thoughts on their home planet. But the kids—Bomar (Chris Month) and Girmar (Ms. Zadora) in particular—are transfixed by the first-ever live remote from Santa’s workshop, where Santa, Mrs. Claus and the elves are getting ready for Christmas. Looks like fun.
The siblings’ parents seek help from Chochem (Yiddish, btw, for “wise man”), an 800-year-old Martian Dr. Phil, for advice. His solution? Kidnap the guy in the red suit and have Christmas on Mars. Father Kimar heads to Earth to snag the big, bearded dude. He and his green-faced cronies enlist the help of an unconvincing robot to take a pair of Earth kids with them to their leaders. While zipping back to Mars, the Earthlings are helped by Dropo, sort of a village Martian idiot. Dropo is played by Bill McCutcheon, a familiar face who starred in countless commercials during the 1960s and later appeared in Steel Magnolias as Shirley McLaine’s beau. It’s unlikely McCutcheon, who also did lots of episodic TV, ever got as big a chance to display his slapstick prowess as he does in the immortal role of “Dropo.”
There was a hot rumor going on in the second grade that Dropo was actually played by Hugh “Lumpy” Branum, the same guy who played “Mr. Greenjeans” on Captain Kangaroo, the same guy who was rumored to be Frank Zappa’s father! That story was perpetuated by Zappa’s 1969 song “Son of Mr. Green Jeans.”
Both rumors were, of course, unfounded.
Santa seems pretty laid back and his expressions are a bit glazed over throughout, ho-ho-ho-ing, even as the evil Voldar (Vincent Beck)—the intergalactic guy with the mustache–tries to get rid of him and the human children.
The blitz of TV advertisements during Saturday morning TV no doubt brought us out full force to the Orleans to see Santa Claus Conquer the Martians. The poster art was also boss, a green and red montage of scenes from the movie looking damn cool to anyone under ten. The movie even became a regular on the Saturday matinee circuit in the 1960s and was popular enough to inspire a Dell comic book. A remake has been rumored from time-to-time—one of the directors attached was David Zucker of Airplane / The Naked Gun / Scary Movie fame.
Along with its showing in The Golden Turkey Awards by (pre-politicized) Michael and Harry Medved, the film got lots of mileage being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1991. In the show, Joel Hodgson and his cronies made mincemeat of the terribleness of the tinsel time fave. Yep, the polar bear costume was tacky and that was obviously stock footage of fighter jets trying to stop the aliens and the acting was oh-so abominable.
But way back when, when Santa Claus Conquers the Martians premiered to an enthusiastic, overcrowded audience on a Saturday afternoon at Philly’s the Orleans Theater, it was magical.
The Christmas movie recommendations continue tomorrow, feel free to post your own recommendations in the comments below. Only 24 sleeps until Christmas!
And in case you missed it this past October, read the horror film recommendations from local Philly film-types here.