Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Cheer: Our Seasonal Flicks

For those who celebrate Christmas, we wish you a very Merry one. For those who don't, be cheerful anyway. For everybody who loves watching movies, here's a few of our seasonal favourites.

As a resident of the Green Mountain State, I probably should prefer 1954’s White Christmas, a sentimental cinematic journey set at a quaint Vermont inn, where cast members (including Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney) perform the titular Irving Berlin song. Instead, give me a heathy dose of irony with A Christmas Story, the timeless 1983 comedy about an eccentric Indiana family during the early 1940s. This autobiographical slice-of-life in the fictional Parker household was written and narrated by Jean Shepherd, the late-night radio idol of my New York childhood. Dad (Darren McGavin) and Mom (Melinda Dillon) try to deflect the fervent holiday wish of nine-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) for a toy BB gun, specifically the Red Ryder Air Rifle, with this parental mantra: “You’ll shoot your eye out.” The director, Bob Clark, may be a Canadian with the execrable Porky’s on his resume, but he got the daffy decency of Middle America just right. Billingsley, by the way, is now the executive producer of A Christmas Story: The Musical! Preview performances of the play in Seattle have already begun, hopefully a very merry highlight of the season.

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companionand with Randee Dawn of  Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

My wife and have had a ritual for many years where we watch a collection of Christmas/Christmas-themed movies during the weeks leading up to Christmas Day. The gang can include Miracle on 34th Street (1947 version only), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Holiday Inn (1942), Little Women (1994 version only), White Christmas (1954), the Alastair Sim A Christmas Carol (1951), plus the animated shorts Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (all produced in the 1960s). We don’t necessarily see them all every year. For this piece, however, I was going to write about a lesser-known Barbara Stanwyck/Sidney Greenstreet film called Christmas in Connecticut (1945). It’s a fun picture that shows up on TCM a few times at Christmas, but we didn’t see it this year, and it’s hard to find on DVD.

Instead, I decided to write about a dynamite sequence in the Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye film, White Christmas. Directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), it is kind of bloated, hardly great film, but I have always had a soft spot for it because there is one sequence that stands out. Bing and Danny are two very successful Broadway producers/performers who are in Florida just before Christmas. As a favour to an old war buddy, they agree to check out an act put on by his sisters (Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney). As The Hayne Sisters, they sing and dance to a song called “Sisters.” Bing and Danny are immediately smitten, but due to circumstances, the girls are forced to flee the night club due to a supposed fee a landlord claims to be owed. The boys agree to help the girls escape, but they decide they need a diversion to stop the sheriff from knowing they’ve left. Bing and Danny don sorta drag and, lip-synching to a record, come on stage and perform “Sisters” as the sisters.

I always thought the sequence was a goof or maybe even a spoiled take they decided to use, because both Danny and Bing are clearly having a blast pretending to be the sisters singing “Sisters.” They laugh, cavort and basically take the mickey out of the piece. It's a moment where we are seeing the real Crosby and Kaye letting their hair down on camera, not as the characters they are playing. And it turns out I’m right. A year or two ago, I finally listened to the commentary about the sequence by the late Rosemary Clooney. She clarified that they had shot a straight-forward, conventional version where the boys really do don full drag and pretend to be the Hayne Sisters. After it was in the can, Crosby asked Curtiz if they could do a goof take for the outtake reel. Curtiz agreed, and they all loved it so much, they dumped the “good” take and kept the knock-off. A wonderful choice, because I’ve seen the film probably more than 20 times over the last 40 years and every time it brings a smile to my face.

David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

Adapted from the short story by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1951) has everything that you want in a good story: colourful characters, mysterious spirits, social commentary and humour. For me, the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from an angry person into a happy one succeeds because of Alastair Sim's dynamic performance. He plays the dark side of the character so well that by the time he fears for his life and is given a second chance, we, too, feel redeemed to change as well. That moment is best experienced in the scene when Scrooge gets to work early the next day and tries to give his loyal employee, Bob Cratchit, a hard time for being late while trying to suppress a laugh. Then he bursts out of his emotional shell with the line, "I don't know why I'm so happy. I don't deserve it. But I can't help it." It's a genuine moment of pure joy rarely seen in Christmas movies since.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

From the Jewish point of view, I’ve always found most Christmas movies and TV programs to be excuses for either selling products or indulging in sentimental family values propaganda. But I’ve always loved A Charlie Brown Christmas, which first aired 45 years ago. Its witty comments on consumerism are a reminder of how smart and relevant Charles Schulz’s Peanuts was in the 60s. Vince Guaraldi’s justly celebrated jazz score still hooks me every time I hear it and who can’t relate to Charlie Brown’s search for meaning during the holidays. Even the show’s heartfelt, sincere religious message, wherein Linus reads from the New Testament about the birth of Jesus, makes sense as a rejoinder to those who have forgotten the true meaning of the holiday. Amidst the dross and emptiness of most seasonal offerings it’s no surprise that A Charlie Brown Christmas is still the standard to which all others aspire. 

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He will be teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

While I'm tempted to include Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa (2003) because it cheerfully and cleverly chides the worst sentimental excesses of the holiday; Gillian Armstrong's version of Little Women (1994) which was moving in a way that made me think it combined the best of Dickens and D.W. Griffith; I prefer Richard Donner's Scrooged (1988) to A Christmas Carol; and we already know that It's a Wonderful Life is not my idea of a Christmas movie; so there is one other James Stewart picture that, for me, will suit the occasion today. Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940) is the story of two shop clerks in Budapest, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) and Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), who share an intense dislike for each other. What they don't realize, however, is that they are both maintaining a secret relationship through a letter-writing correspondence. Neither knows the true identity of the other. While Christmas is only incidental to the story (it takes place during the Christmas season), The Shop Around the Corner is a romantic comedy without a shred of sentimentality. Besides being one of the best date movies about the peculiarities of romantic attraction, its affirmation of the transformative power of love can still melt the heart of any skeptic. Including this one. 

 — Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir at the Revue Cinema in Toronto (see

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