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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

More humbug

I’m sure that this question has been asked and answered many times before, but let’s have a go at it anyway. What is the ultimate Christmas movie?

The question is presumably not without interest for a lot of people. Since beginning this web page, I have been surprised at how my page detailing what I consider the five Christmas film classics has consistently stayed among the top ten pages getting the most hits. But the answer to the question is fairly straightforward and somewhat boring. As far as I am concerned, it is the film adaptation of Charles Dickens’s timeless story “A Christmas Carol.” Okay, so that narrows it down to a couple dozen or more movies (not to mention stage and television and print and other versions).

The fact that Dickens’s story has been adapted so many times and in so many ways is testimony to how the tale captures the Christmas season and spirit for so many people. So, which is the best adaptation? Again, the answer is fairly straightforward and somewhat boring. It is the version released in 1951 and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Alastair Sim in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. It was originally called Scrooge in the UK but seems to be called A Christmas Carol everywhere else. There. I am done. That was the shortest and easiest column ever. Oh, okay, I’ll go on.

The above judgment is my opinion, although it is certainly shared by a large number of people. But other people are obviously going to have their own favorite Christmas movies. Those who see Christmas mainly as a religious occasion may prefer movies about the birth and life of Jesus, such as George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told. Others, more taken up with the popular customs of the holiday, may prefer movies about Santa Claus, although few if any of these have ever worked for me. Probably the one that works best is George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street. Others that try to tell the Santa Claus story too literally just end up smothering the magic. In 1985, the producers who brought us the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, tried to do a similar big special effects number on the story of St. Nick, in Santa Claus, advertised as Santa Claus: The Movie, and it was just weird. Disney did a similar thing with The Santa Clause and its sequels, but deflected some of the weirdness by making it a Tim Allen family comedy. In the end, these movies aren’t really about Santa Claus but about Tim Allen, and clearly that works for a lot of people.

For people into the sentimentality of the season, there are any number of movies about families at Christmastime, chief among these being Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life. But if you think about all these movies very much, something strange happens. You come to realize that they’re all, more or less, the same movie. The Jimmy Stewart movie, the Santa Claus movies, the Jesus movies and the Scrooge movies: they’re all the same movie. They all tell the story of a person (or, in the case of the Jesus movies, humanity in general) losing that spirit that makes life happy or at least bearable and then getting it back, invariably through supernatural (or, in some cases, what seems to be supernatural) intervention. Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey is not exactly Scrooge, but he has definitely lost the plot about what is important in life and reaches a crisis. Ditto for distracted dad Tim Allen and for Maureen O’Hara, cynical mom to young Natalie Wood. And how do they get straightened out? It’s the surprising and difficult-to-explain arrival of three ghosts in the night or Clarence the angel, Edmund Gwenn’s Kris Kringle or that Santa suit that gets left in Tim Allen’s house or, in the case of the Christ movies, God Himself sending his only begotten son to earth.

It’s clearly no coincidence that Christmas (and hence Christmas movies) arrive around the time of the winter solstice (in the Northern Hemisphere). Historians tell us that Jesus’s actual birthday wasn’t in December at all, but somewhere along the line it was decided that this was the date when it needed to be. Other ritual observances of the winter solstice pre-dated Christmas for the same reason. When the days get to their shortest periods of light, that is when we need messages of hope the most. Maybe not quite as much as when most people lived rurally and didn’t have electricity and were more in tune with the shrinking days and growing darkness, but we still need them. And hope at this point in the year is not just some sort of placebo. The days really do get longer again, although at times it is hard to believe that they ever will. I’ve certainly become more aware of that since living in latitudes where the days really grow and shrink in the course of a year. (Growing up in central California, December really was just another month on the calendar.)

If nature and the cycle of the seasons weren’t enough to perpetuate the sense of descending into darkness and then rising out of it again, then there are also the rituals we impose on ourselves. I admire people who truly enjoy the holiday season (most of these being children), but a lot of them seem to be under intense pressure to complete their task lists of Christmas cards, shopping, baking and all the other stuff they feel they need to be doing to “do” the season right. When all this furious activity finally stops, that too must feel like rising up from the darkness for many people. Or, if it all gets a bit too much for them, well, they can always take a break and go to a Christmas movie.

For no particular reason, here are my nominations for the most superlative cinematic Scrooges:

  • Best overall Scrooge: Alastair Sim in Scrooge (1951).

  • Most old-fashioned Scrooge: Charles Rock in A Christmas Carol (1914).

  • Somewhat less old-fashioned Scrooge: Seymour Hicks in Scrooge (1935).

  • Most tasteful Scrooge: Reginald Owen in A Christmas Carol (1938).

  • Singing and dancing Scrooge: Albert Finney in Scrooge (1970).

  • Strange recycled 1950s Scrooge: Henry Winkler in An American Christmas Carol (1979).

  • Most Patton-like Scrooge: George C. Scott in A Christmas Carol (1984).

  • Frustrated housewife Scrooge: Mary Steenburgen in One Magic Christmas (1985).

  • Dry wit Scrooge: Bill Murray in Scrooged (1988).

  • Best inter-species Scrooge: Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992).

  • Soap opera Scrooge: Susan Lucci in Ebbie (1995).

  • Best-sounding Scrooge: Patrick Stewart in A Christmas Carol (1999).

    Happy Holidays to all!

    -S.L., 21 December 2006

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