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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Off the Beaten Yuletide Path, Part 2 (originally published 12/91)

Where were we? Programming a little living room film festival of Christmas movies, as I recall. Here’s the second half of my list.

“Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” (1962). Wait, come back. I’m not kidding. You can’t do a Christmas film festival without including Scrooge but, if you recall, I began with the premise that I wanted to pick titles that were not the most obvious ones. If you’ve seen the Alastair Sim version of “A Christmas Carol” so often that you can anticipate every scowl, give old Magoo a try. The first-rate songs by Bob Merrill and Julie Styne would absolutely play on Broadway. The gags based on nearsightedness that formed the basis for the Mr. Magoo cartoon series are here put aside (apart from one or two sly references) and what we are given is an amusing and touching twist on the old Christmas chestnut. The order of the visits of the three spirits is inexplicably changed, but in most respects the original Dickens text is treated with appropriate deference. If you don’t know this version, give it a try. You won’t be mad at me.

“The Lion in Winter” (1968). This one is for those who like thorns in their mistletoe. If you get impatient with impossibly sweet Christmas stories featuring impossibly happy and well-adjusted families, try spending Christmas with one of history’s great dysfunctional families. Peter O’Toole is Henry II and Katharine Hepburn is Eleanor of Aquitaine. It’s Christmas, and King Henry has temporarily sprung Eleanor from captivity for the occasion. Her three sons, Richard, John, and Geoffrey, are also in attendance, each one keenly aware that Henry is pondering who his successor should be. When the sparks start to fly, stand back.

“Three Godfathers” (1948). What’s this? A John Ford Western? On a Christmas films list? You bet your boots, buckaroo. John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, and Harry Carey, Jr. portray three outlaws who happen across an apparently abandoned covered wagon in the desert. Inside they find a pregnant woman in labor, her husband having perished in the desert while searching for water. Knowing that she too is dying, the mother asks the three men to care for her baby. Reading in the mother’s Bible about Joseph and Mary taking baby Jesus to Jerusalem, they decide to take their young charge to a town called New Jerusalem. As they progress on their journey, the three outlaws become, if not wise men, at least wiser than they were. Each in turn sacrifices himself for the child. It is a Christmas movie if ever there was one, and will leave you with that warm Christmas glow just as surely as any film that drips with sleigh bells and mistletoe.

“The Lemon Drop Kid” (1951). This Bob Hope classic is not primarily a Christmas movie, but is fun to watch at Christmas time because of one priceless sequence. In this adaptation of a Damon Runyan story, Hope is a racetrack tout who is into a gangster for a pile of money. Taking advantage of the season, he and his associates dress up as street corner Santas trying to collect the needed funds from holiday-spirited passersby.

“Twilight Zone: Night of the Meek” (1960). In this classic episode from the original “Twilight Zone” TV series, Art Carney plays a department store Santa who is fired on Christmas Eve for showing up for work drunk. While wandering the streets with his Santa suit still on, he happens upon a sack that does something wonderful. No matter what a person asks him for, Carney finds that he can reach into his magical sack and produce it.

And, although I’ve avoided discussing them here for fear of belaboring the obvious, don’t forget the old Christmas favorites like “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” They didn’t get to be so familiar by accident. Happy viewing to all, and to all a good night.

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