Top 10 Christmas Movies #2: White Christmas

white-christmas-movie-poster-1954-1020143863I’ve written about White Christmas in this space a couple of times, and truth be told, could probably fill a substantial volume writing about all it’s awesome sauce.  It’s one of those movies I’ve seen so many times I don’t even really pay attention to the plot anymore.  I spend my time looking in the background for all the little things I missed on the previous 100 viewings.  And boy is there some great stuff in the background.  Whether you’ve seen it dozens of times like I have or if this is the first time you’ve ever heard of it, do yourself a favor and watch the backup dancers during the Mandy routine.  It’s solid gold.

For the ones that somehow aren’t familiar with this Christmas gem, White Christmas is the story of army buddies Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) who team up after WWII to become a “boffo” song and dance act.  Doing a favor for an old pal from the Army, they meet the Haynes sisters, Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen), another song and dance duo.  Phil, scheming to get Bob a wife and kids, and therefore some time away from the show biz grind for himself, conspires with Judy, looking for some freedom from Betty, to get Bob and Betty together.  The four travel to Vermont for a little R&R, where they run into Bob and Phil’s old commander, General Waverly (Dean Jagger), who now runs an inn.  Times are tough for the General (who prefers not to be called general, but everyone calls him that anyway).  The lack of snow has been bad for business and the inn housekeeper Emma (Mary Wickes) let’s Bob and Phil in on the secret that the General is in over his head.  Bob and Phil, look to their show business sway to find a way to save the inn and show the General he hasn’t been forgotten.

Song and dance hijinx ensue.  Also, occasional cross-dressing.

Like Holiday InnWhite Christmas has tremendous music penned by Irving Berlin, including of course the eponymous title track.  In a similar fashion, it centers around show biz folks, so most of the song and dance numbers appear like natural performances or rehearsals, not just people randomly bursting into elaborate musical numbers on the street.  There are exceptions, most notably The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing number.  The silliness in which that particular routine ends and abruptly returns to reality only adds to the movie’s charm.  Oh, and this chestnut.

Lovely as it is corny.  I can’t get enough of it.

If you’re the kind of person that enjoys musicals, then you will love White Christmas.  If you’re not that person, you will probably still enjoy it.  It’s a good story on it’s own and Bing and company are impossible not to love.  It’s a funny and sweet movie, and you might just get a little misty at the ending.

If you’re a White Christmas veteran but have never taken the time to appreciate all that’s happening on the margins, do yourself a favor this year and keep an eye on the scenery.  It’s more than just spotting the miscues and continuity mistakes.  There is actually a lot going on outside the main action that  will enhance your viewing experience.

A few clues to help you out:

  • Watch modest Bing in the dressing room after Blue Skies
  • The aforementioned backup dancers during Mandy
  • Watch the coffee pot in the Haynes sister’s dressing room
  • Bing’s wardrobe in the Army hospital tent

There’s just a few to get you started.

Not only is White Christmas one of my favorite Christmas movies, it’s one of my favorite movies period.

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Top 10 Christmas Movies #4: Home Alone

mv5bmtuzmzg4mtg2m15bml5banbnxkftztywndm4otk4-_v1_sx640_sy720_As a 13-year old, I saw Home Alone in the theater when it was released in 1990.  For reasons explained elsewhere, I did not go to the movies much as a kid, and persuading my mother to let me see the hottest new movie amongst my demographic in the theater was something of a coup.

Some time later, a family member informed my mother, who still had not seen Home Alone, about the bad attitude Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) has toward his family and how disrespectfully he speaks to his mother (Catherine O’Hara).  Mom pointed this out to me, as if I had been keeping it a secret from her.  I assured her I knew Kevin’s attitude was not acceptable, as I probably rolled my eyes while she wasn’t looking.

A parent myself now, I can of course understand a little better Mom’s concerns about how a Hollywood movie might influence her child.  But, Kevin’s terrible attitude is of course central to the plot of Home Alone (and I’m happy to say Mom has since seen it and, by appearances, seemed to enjoy it).

When the movie opens, we find the McCallister house a-bustle with activity, as the family and extended family prepare to leave for France the next morning.  Eight year-old Kevin is fed up with all the relatives and the lack of enough plain cheese pizza.  In his defense, his siblings and cousins do treat him cruelly, insulting him in French, calling him a disease, and eating all the aforementioned cheese pizza on purpose.  This last offense breaks the camels back and Kevin flips out, causing a scene in the crowded kitchen which results in some misplaced travel documents.  Only adding to his disdain for his own family, Uncle Frank spews a sneering invective in one of the greatest insults in movie history ever leveled at an eight year-old:

Somewhat understandably, yet completely inappropriately, Kevin declares he wishes he didn’t have a family.  Hurt, his mother hopes he doesn’t mean it and sends him off to bed in the attic.

When he awakes the next morning to find the family gone he thinks his wish made his family disappear (in their rush to leave for France, they just forgot him).  At first, it’s a dream come true and he revels in it.  Enter the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), a couple of burglars who have had their eyes set on the McCallister house, the “silver tuna”, since they started working the neighborhood.  As the days go by and Christmas Day draws nearer, Kevin defends his house from the criminals, conquers his fears, and realizes he misses his family and loves them after all.

The final John Hughes movie on our list, in Home Alone Hughes again reminds us that while family can drive us nuts, when it comes down to it, it’s what really matters.  There are great performances by Culkin, Pesci, and O’hara.  The late, great John Candy has a fairly minor, but scene stealing role as Gus Polinski, the Polka King of the Midwest, who helps O’hara get home to Kevin.

For us 90’s kids, Home Alone is a Christmas classic, but I wonder if today’s kids have realized that the whole madcap scenario could have been solved rather easily since the advent of cell phones.  My kids haven’t clued in on that yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.  For it’s time, the movie does a pretty good job of realistically thwarting all of the family’s attempts to contact Kevin from France, though I would not give their communities police department high marks for diligence.  One unanswered knock on the door and the officer assumes the abandoned eight year-old is fine?  Okay.

Of course, you can’t talk about Home Alone without bringing up the funhouse of horrors Kevin transform his house into when the Wet Bandits make their final assault.  Irons to the face, blowtorches to the head, and broken glass to the feet are just a few of the booby traps Kevin sadistically dreams up and employs.  I recently read an article that documented all the injuries Pesci and Stern’s characters would have suffered in real life.  It’s a Christmas miracle they survived.

Home Alone is a full of slapstick fun and a lot of heart.  Good performances, a great–and Oscar nominated–soundtrack from John Williams, a ton of quotable lines and memorable scenes also help to make it #4 on our list.  Merry Christmas, you filthy animals.

 

Top 10 Christmas Movies #5: Elf

Note:  Here’s Jeff’s take on #5, Elf.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a human, raised by elves at the North Pole, traveled to New York City to meet his long lost father? I know I have. Luckily the next movie on our list lets us know.

Elf (starring Will Ferrell in the title role) tells the story of Buddy. He was a baby living in an orphanage when one Christmas Eve he crawled unseen into Santa’s (Ed Asner) sack and ended up stowing away to the North Pole. There he was raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and grew up believing that he was an elf himself. The elves loved and accepted Buddy as one of their own but eventually his 6’3″ frame and lack of toy making skills lead to his discovery that he is actually human.  On top of this shocking revelation he also finds out that his real father (James Caan) is on the Naughty List.

Having learned his true identity Buddy heads to New York to meet his father and find his place in the world. What ensues is what one might expect when a large elf-man armed with nothing but an over abundance of Christmas spirit and childlike optimism confronts the harsh realities of the modern world and a cynical father who is not exactly overjoyed to find out he has one of Santa’s helpers for a son. He even has a less than friendly experience with one who he thinks is his own kind (Peter Dinklage.)

Eventually Buddy is able to make peace with his father, fall in love, and even save Christmas. Happy endings all around.

This is a movie that could have been terrible. It is an admittedly silly story and uses a lot of slapstick humor to get its laughs. In different hands it could have been nothing but a corny schlockfest. But, what makes it work is Will Ferrell’s absolute commitment to the role. He is completely without inhibitions but never stoops to mugging for the camera. He has a real sense of innocence and heart. The movie doubles down on the fish out of water theme: first with Buddy’s humanness conflicting with his life at the North Pole and then with his elfness in New York creating mayhem for himself and pretty much everyone he comes in contact with. All of it results in plenty of genuine laughs.

This is the most recent of the movies on our list. It was released in 2004 but it has already claimed its place as a classic must see holiday favorite. I took my family to see it when our kids were still kids. I watched it with them just the other day and we laughed and loved it just as much.

Top 10 Christmas Movies #6: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Pmpw-38615oor Clark Griswold.  All he wanted was the perfect good time, old fashioned family Christmas.  The lights, the tree, the carols, sledding, the perfect Christmas dinner, and of course that big Christmas bonus.

What he got was frustration, a squirrel infested Christmas tree, Cousin Eddie, a cat food jello mold, a SWAT team invasion, and the Jelly of the Month club.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation takes all of the elements folks come to dread about the Christmas season and puts them on steroids.  Chevy Chase’s well-intentioned family man Clark Griswold does his best to give his family a Christmas to remember.  It certainly will be, but for all the wrong reasons.  His wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and kids, Rusty (Johnny Galecki) and Audrey (Juliette Lewis) do their best to stay encouraging as the wheels start to come off the closer the big day gets and the house fills up with more cantankerous family members than it was made to handle.  Coupled with the realization that big Christmas bonus may not be coming, and thus leaving him unable to pay for the big gift he had planned and paid for, by Christmas Eve, Clark is pushed to the brink of holiday insanity.  The arrival of the chronically uncouth Cousin Eddie (chronically tax-evading Randy Quaid) didn’t help.

Another Chicago-based holiday movie with John Hughes’ fingerprints on it (he wrote this one), Christmas Vacation is the holiday nightmare that seems far fetched, and yet all too real.  Fortunately for me, my good time, old fashioned family Christmas’ all turned out pretty well.  But it isn’t hard to see how bringing so much family under one roof at one time during what should be a festive but is often stressful season, can go horribly awry.

As is usually the case in Hughes’ movies, despite the chaos endured, when it gets down to it, with your family by your side, things have a way of working out.  Even if you do have to live in constant fear of being accosted by a Mississippi leg hound.

Top 10 Christmas Movies #8: Holiday Inn

holiday_inn_posterHoliday Inn was released in 1942 and features some classic Irving Berlin holiday (not just Christmas) songs that would pop up in various other movies over the years.  Most notably, it features the first appearance of White Christmas, which would of course be the eponymous title of a movie that may or may not be featured later on this list, and go on to be the best selling song of all time.

Like The Nightmare Before ChristmasHoliday Inn is a musical appropriate for more holidays than just Christmas.  The similarities pretty much end there.  There are surprisingly few clowns with tear-away faces in Holiday Inn.  All told Holiday Inn covers Christmas, New Years Eve, Lincoln’s Birthday, Valentine’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, Easter, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas again, New Year’s Eve again.  Each holiday features a great song and dance number.

Oh, right, the plot.  Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby), Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), and Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) are a song and dance trio at the top of their craft.  Fed up with show biz life, Jim convinces Lila to leave the rat race, marry him, and take up the lazy, carefree life of a farmer. Apparently Jim has never seen or heard of a working farm before this proposal.  Spurned by Lila, who opts to marry Ted instead, and discovering farming is anything but lazy or carefree, Jim turns the farm into the Holiday Inn, a venue only open all holidays, giving him the rest of the year to kick up his feet and think of clever Bing Crosbyisms (“take a slug out of the mug”).  Joining him at his new venture is Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), yes Linda Mason, an aspiring performer and new love interest for Jim.

But before long, in stumbles Ted, drunk and dumped by Lila, on the opening night of Holiday Inn, New Year’s Eve.  In his stupor, Ted trips the light fantastic with Linda to wild approval of the crowd.  But, he’s too fractured to remember her after the fact.  What follows is a festive spate of musical scheming on the part of Ted and his unscrupulous agent Danny Reed (Walter Abel) on the one hand, and Jim on the other, in a battle for Linda’s affections and sway in determining the course of her show biz career.

The performances are great all-around.  I’m not really a dance guy, but somehow Fred Astaire makes it look pretty cool, especially his fireworks tap dance routine (brief snippet in the trailer below).  All the holiday musical numbers are great, and feel more organic and realistic than they might in other musicals.  They don’t just randomly burst into song like in a lot of other old musicals.  They are giving actual performances for the most part, so they seem natural.  There are a couple exceptions of course, but when it’s Bing doing the crooning, who cares?

There is the matter of the black face performance during the Abraham number.  Try to remember is was 1942.

All told, it’s a fun and entertaining movie with great songs, worthy of a yearly viewing and and the number eight spot on this list.

Post Script:

Besides being great on it’s own merits and providing us with the greatest Christmas song ever, Holiday Inn also spawned this amazing (and only?) Bing Crosby remix.  Enjoy.

 

 

Top 10 Christmas Movies #10 – The Nightmare Before Christmas

the_nightmare_before_christmas_posterA few years ago I posed a question to my legion of Facebook friends (385 and shrinking):  Is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Christmas movie or a Halloween movie?  The overwhelming (and obvious) answer was “both!”  So really, the movie covers three major holidays; Halloween, Christmas, and because it fits neatly between those two, Thanksgiving.  This is important because there really aren’t any  good Thanksgiving movies, with one exception, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.  But more on that later in this series.

Due to it’s unique amalgam of multiple holidays, it’s the one that usually kicks off the holiday movie viewing season at my house in October.  I’ve got small kids, and I’m not really into horror movies anyway, so this is about as scary as it gets in our living room.  For an animated Christmas movie, it’s pretty creepy.  For a Halloween movie, not as much.

Released in 1993 and springing from the warped mind of Tim Burton, it’s the story of Halloween Town and it’s pumpkin-headed Hallowen party planner Jack Skellington.  Growing tired of the same-old-same-old spooky life in Halloween Town, Jack wanders into the woods and stumbles into Christmas Town.  He’s immediately smitten with Christmas Town–where the kids are throwing snowballs instead of heads–and tries to bring the holiday to Halloween Town, with disastrous results.  Trying to play the role of Santa, Jack quickly learns the world is not ready for a Halloweenized version of Christmas.  People prefer the gifts under their tree not try to eat them.

Nightmare is a musical, and all the music is written by Danny Elfman, who is also Jack’s singing voice. The music is the best part of the movie with some really great, memorable songs.  Some are creepy (my son is constantly quoting the line from This Is Halloween “I am the clown with the tear-away face!”), some are festive like What’s This, some are melancholy like Sally’s Song, and some just weird like Kidnap Sandy Claws (sample: “Kidnap the Sandy Claws, beat him with a stick, lock him up for 90 years, see what makes him tick”).  Oh, and of course the jazz-inspired Oogie Boogie’s Song.  They’re all great.

The animation is of the stop-motion variety, and pretty impressive, especially for 1993.  The production included the use of about 400 different heads for Jack to capture all his expressions!

Most of the movie takes place in Halloween Town, full of all kinds of fun and creepy characters.  There’s the aforementioned clown with the tear away face, the two-faced mayor, the mischievous trio of Lock, Shock, and Barrell sent by Jack to kidnap Santa Claus, and Sally, the Frankensteinesque monster love interest of Jack.  And of course, Ooogie Boogie, who is basically a burlap sack full of bugs who lives in some kind of death trap casino.  The town is also full of all the Halloween regulars; vampires, werewolves, skeletons, and bats.

I was a bit of a late comer to the party, not ever seeing Nightmare until a few years ago, watching it with my then four-year old daughter.  The wife was not so happy about that.  Neither was the daughter, to be honest.  Ooops.  She is eight now and my son is five and they both love it.

If you want something a little subversive and off the wall during your Christmas movie viewing this year it’s worth checking out.  It’s funny, clever, and the songs are infectious.  If it were strictly a Christmas movie, it would be higher on our list, but it’s Halloweeness worked against it in this case.  Also, Jeff has only seen it once.  Shameful.  Happy Halloween!  I mean, Merry Christmas!  Or something.

Top 10 Christmas Movies: The List

christmas-moviesNote:  Between now the Christmas my uncle and friend Jeff Graves (AKA Heavy G) and I will be posting our Top 10 Christmas movies list here and on his blog You Know What I Mean?  Below is the intro he wrote.  Enjoy!  Or don’t. We really don’t care.  Merry Christmas!

The Christmas season is upon us once more. With this comes Christmas music, Christmas shopping, Christmas parties, Christmas cookies, and even Christmas sweaters. In addition to these, this time of year brings a cavalcade of Christmas movies. There is so much to choose from. You have everything from the heartwarming to the cynical, from family friendly to not family friendly at all. No matter what your taste you can find something to help you get in the holiday spirit or in some cases escape from it.

With this in mind Andy Bauer over at Life of Ando and I have comprised a list of and will be posting about our top 10 Christmas movies of all time. There are some parameters. All the movies on this list are theatrical releases so that means no Rudolph or Charlie Brown (maybe next year we will tackle TV specials). Also we have expanded beyond strictly Christmas movies to include other holidays, but being a Christmas movie does increase a film’s ranking.

If you have not seen one or more of these movies, hopefully you will be inspired to check them out for yourself. We would also love to hear what you think and look forward to your comments. If you disagree with us that’s OK,  just know that you’re wrong