Christmas Movies
December 9, 2006

I feel better for having gotten the Christmas decorating done — just a small tree with red lights and balls, plus a door wreath — so I’m relaxing with some favorite holiday movies. My choices from our library were:

The Muppet Christmas Carol cover
The Muppet
Christmas Carol
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The Muppet Christmas Carol: Bittersweet, since it was the first big Muppet project after the death of Jim Henson. They put a new spin on the classic, with Gonzo as Charles Dickens narrating, but stick pretty closely to the basics, which is nice. I’m not sure Michael Caine was the best choice to play Scrooge, but Kermit makes a nice Bob Cratchit, and I love Beaker and Dr. Honeydew as charity collectors. (Beaker’s always a favorite.)

There are other recognizable Muppets in key roles — like Statler and Waldorf as the Marley ghost, turned from one character into brothers — but I appreciate the way that the three main ghosts aren’t. The Ghost of Christmas Past resembles one of the characters from The Dark Crystal, while the other two are more traditional human-size Muppet suits, although very different in mood, as they should be.

Gremlins cover
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Speaking of Christmas horror stories (because that’s what Carol is, the cautionary tale of a man scared by ghosts into doing the right thing), how about Gremlins? I don’t like scary, but the adorable Gizmo and the movie’s sense of humor makes it all ok for me. It seems like there was a lot more of this kind of good-hearted entertainment in the 80s than there is now. I don’t mean to sound like a fogey, but I can’t think of a successful recent adventure or romantic comedy I’ve enjoyed the same way I did something like Back to the Future. (I loved Kate & Leopold, but it seems few others did.)

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas cover
Emmet Otter’s
Jug-Band Christmas
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Let’s go back to the Muppets. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas isn’t as well-known as it should be, but I’ve loved it for years. Using non-familiar characters allows more flexibility in story, and the otters are so fuzzy cute. LOVE the song about “a mess of Mama’s barbecue”, one of several memorable Paul Williams songs.

It’s a wonderful way to introduce kids to the concept behind O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi”, with Mama and Son giving up things important to them in order to compete in the talent contest in order to win enough money for the gift they really want. It’s made all the more poignant by their clearly precarious economic status; they’re not just risking their desires but their livelihoods. That adds an important seasonal reminder to keep in mind how lucky we are if we don’t have to worry about meals or heat or where we live or buying gifts for others. I find it a welcome tonic for the ever-increasing commercialism that surrounds us at this time of year and a comforting reminder of family love.

Little Women cover
Little Women
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Also in that category is Little Women. It’s got an amazing cast, anchored by Susan Sarandon and including Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, and Kirsten Dunst. Even if I disagree with Louisa May Alcott’s romantic choices for Jo, it’s wonderful to see such strong young women.

Let’s see… there’s also Toys, which falls apart but has marvelous visuals, and it contains my all-time favorite Christmas song, “The Closing of the Year”. And The Nightmare Before Christmas, which I don’t care that much for but I’m glad exists so goths and nihilists have holiday entertainment. (I’m surprised to see, considering how much merchandise is still made and sold for this movie, that the DVD is apparently out of print.)

Desk Set cover
Desk Set
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But my two favorites are older movies that feature strong women in roles very non-traditional for their times.

Desk Set is the first color Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy film, from 1957. She’s a researcher (and trivia goddess) for a network; he’s the efficiency expert brought in to install the latest in mechanization: a room-size computer. It’s a blast from the past, whether it’s the attitude that only single women can or should work, or the assumption that of course she’s just waiting around until the guy who’s strung her along for years finally proposes, or the way that the company Christmas party features drinking all day and winds from floor to floor. One year, I’m going to do a full metallic tree in honor of this film, which has one so draped in tinsel icicles that you can’t see green underneath.

There’s more relevant in the movie’s events than I expected, like the nature of working for a corporation and the fear of layoffs, and I like the way the two leads are clearly mature adults.

Christmas in Connecticut cover
Christmas in Connecticut
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Christmas in Connecticut is still my favorite. From 1945, Barbara Stanwyck plays that generation’s Martha Stewart, a famous magazine writer who’s always describing her farmhouse, her delicious gourmet meals, and her loving husband and baby.

Problem is, she has none of those things. She’s a working woman who can’t cook but buys herself a mink because she’s always wanted one. When a war hero writes her publisher saying all he wants is to spend Christmas with her, she has to arrange to make all her perfect things come true. Thankfully, a great cook owes her a favor, her boring boyfriend has a farm, and she manages to borrow a baby.

Of course, she and the hero are instantly attracted to each other, even though he thinks she’s married and she thinks he’s engaged. It’s a refreshing take on a non-stereotypical woman’s role with plenty of comedy, romance, and heart-warming holiday cheer.

So what’s your favorite holiday film?

32 Responses  
Ali Kokmen writes:  

Well. Muppet-wise, you gotta put in a word for A Muppet Family Christmas, the special made during Jim Henson’s lifetime. Watching it on home video is bittersweet, though, since the current version omits several scenes I remember from first watching it. (Music rights, I’m sure…)

Another favorite holiday film is the original We’re No Angels where Humprhey Bogart, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov play convicts who escape from Devil’s Island and fall in with a hapless shopkeeper and his family. It’s a slow paced comedy, and there are stretches were Bogart or Ustinov deliver a line so droll you almost wish there were a laugh track to get things going. There are some bits of black comedy–especially dealing with Basil Rathbone as the shopkeeper’s cousin who runs the business and is dismayed with the finances–but it’s really a very sweet movie, the only one I really try to watch every holiday season.

My other favorite holiday film is the original Miracle on 34th Street, which famously involves a man who claims to be Santa Claus being put on trial regarding same. The one thing I absolutely love about this movie is how various parties act in their own self-interest, but it all works out for the benefit of all.

OK. Guess it’s time to fire up the ol’ DVD…

Brigid writes:  

I have always liked the old movies, and Desk Set and Christmas in Connecticut are two of my favorites. I also really enjoy the old version of A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim playing Scrooge.

But to my family, It’s a Wonderful Life is the Christmas movie. Back when they used to run it multiple times, we used to watch every showing until we had the whole script memorized and could spend the rest of Christmas vacation talking to each other in lines from the film.

Jim writes:  

It was a little bit of a thrill to see Emmet and Ma Otter and their boat at the National History Museum this summer. Sadly, those don’t appear to be among the Muppets moved over to Air & Space or I would urge you to take a day trip.

By the way, I think you mean “Beaker,” not “Bunsen.” I apologize for puppetry-related pedantry.

Brian Cronin writes:  

I absolutely adore “The Shop Around the Corner,” so much so that it is one of those rare films with a Christmas setting that I have no problem watching year round.

Jimmy Stewart is amazing in it.

Dorian writes:  

“Nightmare Before Christmas” was recently re-released in theaters, in a new digital 3D format, so the old DVD edition was probably allowed to go out of print in preperation for a new edition.

I keep meaning to pick up the “Emmet Otter” disc when I see it each Christmas, and continually forget.

Ed writes:  

My favorite Christmas movies/shows are A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, all the Rankin/Bass animations, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I like the Muppet Christmas specials a lot and your right Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is an overlooked gem.

Jim Kosmicki writes:  

I think the reason Emmet Otter is overlooked is that it was an HBO exclusive from when Henson was doing Fraggle Rock for them. The people who know this special (and they all remember it fondly) are inevitably either people who had HBO in the day or Henson fanatics. it’s the same with the stuffed animals specials — they were HBOnly for a long time, and thus had a pretty limited audience.

Johanna writes:  

I’ve never found Wonderful Life as wonderful as others do, possibly because of over-expectations, but I’m glad to be reminded of Miracle on 34th Street. Natalie Wood gives such a great performance as the little girl in that.

Argh! I can’t believe I got Beaker’s name wrong! I’ve fixed that, thanks.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Muppet Family Christmas… I’ll have to seek it out!

Alan Coil writes:  

A Christmas Story is the one I watch annually.

Holiday Inn is a better movie, but I prefer to watch White Christmas when it is cold out. Holiday Inn can be watched any time of the year.

Jason Rodriguez writes:  

It’s all about Charlie Brown Christmas for me.

A little bit of trivia for you: when that show first aired it had a 50 share. That means half of the country watched it.

Larry Young writes:  

I’m probably the only Comics Worth Reading reader who thinks DIE HARD is the best holiday movie. :)

Johanna writes:  

Alan: I have a hard time watching Holiday Inn because of the blackface number for Lincoln’s birthday, but there’s some great music in both films.

Jason: Yeah, and the country only had three channels. :)

Larry: I was waiting for someone to bring that up! I watched that again a few months ago, and it holds up surprisingly well. And yeah, it is a Christmas movie. Just not the usual kind.

Mark writes:  

I’m probably the only Comics Worth Reading reader who thinks DIE HARD is the best holiday movie. :)

I don’t know if it’s the best christmas movie but it’s always a great one to fall back on :)

Regarding Gremlins, I’d recommend the Gremlins 2. It’s not a christmas movie but it’s more funny than the first one.

Ralf Haring writes:  

Current favorite is Santa’s Slay.

Ed writes:  

Oh, I should mention a great film to cut through the holiday schmaltz–Bad Santa. When all the commerical sacchrine of Christmas really gets to me this very dark comedy helps cleanse the soul and senses.

Ralf Haring writes:  

Elfis a decent comedy Christmas movie.

Chris Galdieri writes:  

Bad Santa is so wickedly evil and nasty and hilarious that I start laughing just thinking about it; I am completely serious when I say that Billy Bob Thornton deserved an Oscar nomination for it. John Ritter was great in his small (and, I think, final) role in it, too.

Marc Mason writes:  

I’m with Larry- DIE HARD is a great Christmas movie! I’m also partial to SCROOGED…

Bill D. writes:  

Muppet Family Christmas is well worth hunting down. You get Muppet Show Muppets, Sesame Street Muppets, and Fraggles (and, IIRC, a Muppet Babies cameo) all for one admission! It’s the most Muppets for your Christmas dollar!

And yeah, I love Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, too. I really need to get the DVD of that. There’s enough music in it that I think my 18 month old son would really enjoy it.

Paul Sizer writes:  

No question, EMMET OTTER is a classic! I just bought DVD copies for everyone in my family last Christmas, and had our entire family singing along with all the songs, and of course the excellent Frank Oz line: No, I’m not hungry…I’m HUUUUUUUUNNNNNGRRRY!” When I grow up, I want to be in the River Bottom Nightmare Band!

Johanna writes:  

Some of you people are sick! And those recommending Muppet Family Christmas didn’t tell me that the DVD is out of print and goes for over $100!

Ok, I’m done being outraged. Elf is a good modern film, and one that both I and my parents enjoyed watching, which surprised me, so thanks for that reminder.

Bill, yeah, the songs are terrific. And the DVD is wonderful, with a great documentary and all the deleted clips included.

Paul: The fish was my favorite. :)

James Schee writes:  

When I was a kid I really liked the Disney Christmas Carol cartoon, haven’t seen it in over a decade though so don’t know how it holds up now.

Scrooged is a fav., as is The Ref which still makes me laugh to this day when I see it.

Lyle writes:  

I have odd tastes in Christmas specials. A little while back I saw some TV columnist write a piece saying he saw people as either “Charlie Brown Christmas” fans or Grinch fans. Me those are my two favorite Christmas specials

Plus I love to sing along to “You’re a mean one, mister Grinch”

Ed Sizemore writes:  

Lyle, that TV columnist was watching too much Pulp Fiction. Almost everyone I know loves both A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It’s rare I find someone that likes only one of the two.

Johanna, “sick”-that’s harsh ;-} That is the first visceral response one of my post has elicited from you. I feel oddly proud.

Ali Kokmen writes:  

Some of you people are sick! And those recommending Muppet Family Christmas didn’t tell me that the DVD is out of print and goes for over $100!

Whaa–? It’s out of print? Man, that’s a shame. Even its bowlderized home video releases are better than nothing.

Well, to make up for it, I’ll put in a mention for the more recent, not-a-classic-but-still-fun It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. It’s largely a Muppet version of It’s A Wonderful Life and though it contains a lot of humor-by-reference-to-popular-culture (and so it may not stand the test of time) there are still some great Muppetational moments that still make it worth watching. (Fozzie has a great sequence, IIRC…)

Johanna writes:  

I remember watching that one on TV… you’re right, it was good. Thanks for the reminder.

Dawn writes:  

I add my vote to Ali’s for We’re No Angels. It’s my favorite Christmas movie too. It is very understated but I kind of like that.

Love Actually is silly but cute.

I like Tokyo Godfathers as a different kind of Christmas movie. There is a lot of love in it but it’s not a comfortable trip.

Ed Sizemore writes:  

Dawn, Great recommendation that I completely overlooked. I forgot the film takes place during Christmas. Anything by Satoshi Kon is always on the top of my recommendation list.

Bess writes:  

I just watched “Little Women” (1994) and don’t understand how this is not a Christmas classic. Yes, it has tragedy but it is all about family and love. Makes me glad to have sisters.

Brian Cronin writes:  

I had a little Christmas movie marathon with the girlfriend this weekend.

A Shop Around the Corner
Love Actually
Die Hard

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