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Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas Lite (originally published 12/93)

Remember what Christmas movie viewing was like in the bad old days before home video? The television networks and their affiliates made all the choices for you. If the only time "It's A Wonderful Life" was being shown was at 1:00am on December 21, your options were either to miss it or to sit up half the night and then spend the next day wishing you'd never been born.

Now, of course, things are different. You can program your own living room Christmas film festival, scheduled at your convenience and featuring only the kind of Christmas movies you like best. Some of us like the hardcore stuff -- drenched in mistletoe, cascading snow and sentimentality, and presided over by St. Nick himself. You might call us the "Miracle on 34th Street" crowd. Others, however, prefer their seasonal film fare with just a light dusting of the trappings of Christmas, while the focus of the main storyline remains elsewhere. Since this latter type is less easy to identify, I thought it might be useful to list a few films that fall into that category. These are not primarily Christmas movies, but all of them include at least one important Christmas scene.

"The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1942) Monty Woolley plays Sheridan Whiteside, a character transparently based on Alexander Woollcott, a prominent literary and stage critic of the time. Woollcott was one of the mainstays of the famed Algonquin round table, a celebrated aggregation of witty and sophisticated tastemakers that included Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker. Personally, however, he was more than a little hard to take. Known for his sharp tongue and acid wit, Woollcott delighted in turning clever phrases at the expense of others. Sheridan Whiteside is, if such a thing is possible, a caricature of Woollcott crafted by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the authors of the play on which the film is based, who knew Woollcott well. Whiteside is on a lecture tour a couple of weeks before Christmas when he is persuaded to have dinner with a nouveau riche businessman named Stanley and his socialite wife. Although he considers them riffraff, he grudgingly goes. Unfortunately for all concerned, he slips on the ice on their front stoop and finds himself confined to the couple's home for several weeks while his injuries heal. Whiteside commandeers the couple's home, as is his custom, throwing their lives into complete chaos. Ultimately it becomes necessary to bring in a radio remote crew so that Whiteside can do the Christmas Eve broadcast of his radio show from the Stanley living room. This is an enormously entertaining film, crackling with clever Kaufman-Hart dialogue. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944) It's an MGM musical directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Judy Garland. What more do you need to know? The story portrays four episodes (one for each season of the year) in the life of the Smith family of St. Louis. The winter sequence, which revolves around who will escort whom to the Christmas ball, features Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

"The Bells of St. Mary's" (1945) In a sequel to the highly successful "Going My Way" (1944), Bing Crosby repeats his role as Father O'Malley. This time he finds himself butting heads, albeit gently and lightheartedly, with the mother superior (Ingrid Bergman) of a parish school that is so old and creaky that it is in danger of being condemned. In one especially charming scene the two of them watch the first-graders rehearsing the Christmas play that they have written. Crosby's acting style, as always, is as comfortable as an old shoe, and Bergman plays off him perfectly.

"Fanny and Alexander" (1982). If you think of Ingmar Bergman movies exclusively as morbid flicks about long-faced Swedes sitting around discussing the silence of God, this film will be a real eye-opener. It is a visually beautiful film that opens with a family Christmas celebration. The two title characters are children, and most of the film reflects their fascination with the magic of life. There's misfortune along the way, sure, but not the kind of unremitting, soul-deadening angst that has come to be associated with Bergman. Do take note of the R rating, however. It's not typical Bergman, but it's not Disney either.

If you prefer your Christmas fare low-key, these films should fill the bill. Meanwhile, I'll be off somewhere gorging myself on "Miracle on 34th Street."