Olivia Hussey as the Virgin Mary in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth”
Following up on my “Still Christmas” post on Advent and Christmas family traditions, Christmas movies are an important tradition in many households. For me, Christmas movies are an especially important way of marking the continuing Christmas season. In general, I would rather watch Christmas movies with my kids after Christmas day, rather than before, as a way of celebrating the Christmas season.
The one Christmas classic I’d really like to watch before Christmas is, alas, one that hasn’t been made yet. I mean a Christmas classic about the real meaning of Christmas, the birth of the Lord Jesus. There have been movies made about this, notably The Nativity Story, but nothing that rises to real classic status. (For more on The Nativity Story’s artistic and theological merits and limitations, see my various pieces at Decent Films.)
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth watching on the real meaning of Christmas. In particular, I like to watch the first hour or so of Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth with my family around Christmastime. Praised by Pope Paul VI as “an example of a fine use that can be made of the new ways of communication that God is offering man,” Jesus of Nazareth honors both the Jewish context in which Jesus was born and the Catholic sensibility that has celebrated Him for 2000 years.
In particular, Olivia Hussey is an iconic Virgin Mary, and the numinous Annunciation scene is the best I’ve ever seen. Peter Ustinov as Herod the Great has a wonderful scene offering an outside perspective on Judaism and the phenomena of prophecy and Messianic hope. There are down sides, most annoyingly the Magi’s avoidance of Herod’s court, and Herod fretting about the same. And you have to be willing to deal with Mary suffering birth pangs (for more, see my essay on Catholic teaching and The Nativity Story, which raises the same issue). Overall, though, it’s the best we have so far.
Other Jesus movies opening with Nativity sequences include The Greatest Story Ever Told (by George Stevens, beautifully photographed by William C. Mellor and Loyal Griggs) and the 1977 Jesus movie, based on the Gospel of Luke. Nativity-themed productions I haven’t seen include the 2010 BBC miniseries “The Nativity” and The Fourth Wise Man starring Martin Sheen. Any thoughts?
Also worth mentioning are a couple of short form small-screen works. One, of course, is the classic “Peanuts” special “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” with its moving reading from Luke 2 by Linus Van Pelt, which one couldn’t imagine being made today, and which almost didn’t happen even in 1965, if not for Charles Shulz’s adamant insistence. (This tidbit and others have been circulating on the Internet this year thanks to a recent essay, “10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’.”)
The other is even shorter, and less culturally significant, but it’s almost more remarkable, and equally hard to believe that it was made as recently as 1993: “Little Drummer Warners,” a 6-minute episode of “Animaniacs” featuring Wakko, Yakko and Dot as shepherds in Bethlehem coming to see the baby Jesus. Scored to classic Christmas carols, it’s a remarkably reverent, gently comic celebration of Christmas iconography. Here it is:
Anyway, notwithstanding all of the above, the door is wide open for a new cinematic masterpiece celebrating the birth of Jesus.
In the absence of such a film, what is there to watch in the way of Christmas-themed viewing?
For me, one title stands above all the rest. I would even go so far as to say, with tongue-in-cheek hyperbole: There is only one real Christmas movie—one gold-plated can’t-live-without-it Christmas classic. I speak, of course, of the Vatican film list honoree It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s variation on A Christmas Carol, which dwarfs the original Dickens story and all 217 (or whatever) screen adaptations.
I don’t mean to deny A Christmas Carol its due. I enjoy it, and I watch some version of it every year. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a version I haven’t liked. I know some Christians blame Dickens for promoting a secular vision of Christmas, but Chesterton eloquently defends A Christmas Carol, and the more secular our culture becomes, the more inclined I am to agree with him.
The redemption of miserly old Scrooge is heartwarming, and there are some touching moments in young Scrooge’s life, particularly the sad moment when his fiancée breaks up with him. The memento mori sequence in the graveyard is moving in its way (though it shows Scrooge no more than we all know every day). Best of all are the scenes in the Cratchit household, with good-as-gold Tiny Tim wanting to go to church on Christmas Day because he wanted the sight of a crippled boy to remind people of the one who made the lame walk and the blind see.
But here’s the thing: I love Bob Cratchit and his family more than I do Scrooge, yet Scrooge is the protagonist in A Christmas Carol. A big part of the genius of It’s a Wonderful Life is that the hero is not the mean, wealthy miser, Henry Potter, but the impoverished, heroic family man, George Bailey.
And what a hero he is! Not a perfect man, certainly; not as virtuous or disciplined as A Man For All Seasons’ Thomas More, say. But for all his flaws, George Bailey is one of the greatest heroes in Hollywood history, and his vindication is among the most richly deserved. It makes me cry every year—not just at the ending, but pretty much continuously throughout.
I need to stop there, or this blog post will turn into an interminable multi-part series about the greatness of It’s a Wonderful Life, which is not what I set out to write. Someday I will write a long essay on all the things I love about It’s a Wonderful Life (my review is okay, but I need to do much better). There is so much garbage written about this movie trying to tear it down, debunk it, etc. There has also been some excellent and insightful writing. Someday I’ll do my best to add to the latter.
After It’s a Wonderful Life, the next best bet is probably A Christmas Carol. But which one? There are so many, and many of them are worth seeing. The 1951 Alistair Sim version is of course the iconic classic. The versions starring Albert Finney (1970), George C. Scott (1984) and Patrick Stewart (1999) all have their various strengths and defenders. I even like the 2009 motion-capture animated Disney version starring Jim Carrey as Scrooge and all the Christmas spirits, in a theme-park ride sort of way. ( Which is your favorite? Your least favorite?)
Just this year, inspired by the recent return of the Muppets to the big screen, my family and I finally caught up with A Muppet Christmas Carol, which I’ve always heard good things about—and it turns out they’re all true. Michael Caine plays Scrooge quite straight rather than playing it with a wink because it’s a Muppet movie, and this is a very good decision. We even like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.
There’s lots more, of course. A lot of people love the boyhood nostalgia of A Christmas Story, and it’s easy to see why (if you’re okay with the language). I could go on—the list is practically endless. But I’d rather conclude with a few notes about Christmas-themed movies I don’t like.
Anything with Tim Allen is a good place to start. The Santa Clause is the kind of broken family film I really don’t like, with its postmarital snark and divorce mindset. The first sequel, which reduces “the real meaning of Christmas” to the lowest common denominator: not even family, generosity or good will, but toys, presents. (The recent Aardman Animations production Arthur Christmas makes a similar mistake.)
Then there’s Allen’s Christmas with the Kranks, which makes the seasonal celebration of Christmas so oppressive that it actually threatens to vindicate Allen’s character’s wish for a total boycott of Christmas, including charitable giving, in favor of a holiday cruise with his wife.
I know a lot of people like The Bishop’s Wife, starring Cary Grant. Meh. The whole premise of a romantic comedy starring Cary Grant as an angel—not a pseudo-angel, like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life (a soul of a flesh-and-blood mortal who died in what Catholic theology calls the state of grace, and who would thus be a holy soul or a saint rather than an “angel”), but an immortal, pure spirit—is just icky and wrong. It can be somewhat more tolerable in an art film, like Wings of Desire, although I don’t like it even there. But in a popular entertainment it turns me off. Angels—real angels—shouldn’t be imagined that way.
No list of icky Christmas movies would be complete without mentioning Jim Carrey’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas—a movie about which I have nothing to say that I didn’t say 11 years ago in my first rhyming review ever.
Finally, in a strange postscript, my two older sons claim that one year on Christmas Day itself I showed them F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Naturally, I refuse to believe I could possibly have done anything so horrible.