Christmas is to Hollywood what a bank is to a crook. The kids are home for the holidays, the house is full of restless guests who need tending — so why not take the afternoon off and go to the movies? And go we do, in numbers that fill the larcenous hearts of studio moguls with an uncontrollable yearning to balance the books. A successful Christmas movie is the gift that keeps on giving: Not only does it make buckets of money up front, but it can also be sold directly to the public on videocassette and shown on TV well into the next millennium.
Why, then, have there been so few really good holiday films? It seems there’s this little catch: Christmas is about Christ, and Hollywood knows Him not. No matter how thinly you slice the fruitcake, America’s most widely observed holiday is also a full-fledged religious celebration, unless you happen to be standing on government-owned property. Even those who aren’t given to churchgoing usually long for a touch of the uplift come December. (If La Rochefoucauld had been an American, he might have said that Christmas, not hypocrisy, is the tribute vice pays to virtue.) The film industry, by contrast, is almost totally secularized, in addition to which it tries whenever possible to avoid taking unequivocal stances that might inspire noisy protests in front of TV cameras.
Needless to say, any commercial film that dared to declare the glory of God and the divinity of Christ would surely make somebody angry, if only Frank Rich. Therein lies the perennial problem of the Christmas movie: How do you evoke the spirit of Christmas without mentioning its source? Charles Dickens showed the way in A Christmas Carol, a book notable for the prescient shrewdness with which its author contrived to avoid giving offense to unbelieving readers. For while the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge appears at first glance to be an impeccably Christian parable of the power of grace to soften men’s hearts, it turns out on closer inspection that Scrooge is converted at book’s end not to Christianity, but something altogether more amorphous — the social gospel, perhaps. Significantly, nobody in A Christmas Carol, not even the newly reformed Scrooge, is ever seen going to church, just as none of the various holiday festivities described in the course of the book has any religious content whatsoever. To the extent that Christ’s birth figures in Dickens’s portrait of Christmas in London, it is as little more than pious window-dressing:
But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
All this helps to explain the frequency with which A Christmas Carol has been taken up by the mass media over the years. In addition to countless radio and TV adaptations (I can still sing the songs from Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol), there have been at least six full-length Christmas Carol films, the best of which is the 1951 version, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Alastair Sim as the perfect Scrooge. One of the more recent versions, Richard Donner’s Scrooged (1988), is in some ways the most revealing, for it has been both modernized and fully secularized, with Bill Murray playing the part of a cynical TV executive whose shriveled soul is revived by the ministrations of an old girlfriend (Karen Allen), who turns out to be — you guessed it — a social worker.
Though Scrooged is an extreme case, most Christmas-related movies and TV shows similarly portray the rebirth of a dry soul through the workings of a mysterious force known as the Christmas Spirit. This force, conjured up by the performance of a charitable act, has the power to make nasty people nice, so long as they never utter the words “Jesus Christ” on camera, save in vain. Such films can be touching, and even quite funny: Scrooged is not without its clever moments, and I’m also a fan of Ted Demme’s much-underrated The Ref (1994), a black comedy in which Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis play a viciously bickering couple whose marriage takes a turn for the better (it couldn’t get much worse) when an armed robber camps out in their unhappy home on Christmas Eve. Even so, I often find myself wondering just how all these formerly cranky men and women manage to avoid considering even for a moment the possibility that their miraculous changes of heart might have had something to do with the influence of a higher power. I suppose that if Our Blessed Lord Himself were to gallop down the streets of Los Angeles on a white charger, showering blessings on all who saw Him ride by, most of the recipients would just shake their heads and say, “Who was that masked man?”
Another way in which filmmakers stay clear of the thorny thickets of faith is by focusing on what might be called the Santa Claus angle. This was the line taken by George Seaton in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), among the most fondly remembered films of its kind, though I myself prefer Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story (1983), a charming adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s reminiscences of Midwestern family life in the ’40s. Peter Billingsley stars as a little boy who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, a slender pretext on which Shepherd and Clark hang a string of sweetly funny, beautifully realized vignettes that poke gentle fun without stooping to the sour condescension that mars the work of such nostalgia merchants as Garrison Keillor. Clark is good at this sort of thing — he wrote and directed Porky’s, a deftfully unpretentious coming-of-age movie that was mistakenly written off as a silly sex comedy — and though A Christmas Story contains no hint that most Midwesterners go to church each and every Sunday, it gets just about everything else right.
I also heartily recommend George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (1993), admittedly a Christmas movie of an altogether different sort. Of all the myriad versions of Tchaikovsky’s great ballet, the one choreographed by George Balanchine for New York City Ballet is by far the most artful and imaginative, and the film version, directed by Emile Ardolino, is a faithful record of what it looks like on stage at Lincoln Center. The dancing is mostly very good, at times superlatively so (Kyra Nichols’s crystalline performance as Dewdrop is one of the high points of ballet on film), but the best part is the first-act party scene, set in a large, homey-looking living room filled with children who exchange presents, play leapfrog, and chase one another around. I can’t describe it better than by quoting the words of the great dance critic Edwin Denby: “The sentiments are those of family life, Christmas Eve, children growing up among adults, a little girl’s odd and beautiful imagination. And the miracle is that these familiar sentiments appear onstage without vulgarization or coyness, with brilliant dancing, light fun, and with the amplitude of a child’s wonderful premonitions.”
Still, The Nutcracker, even in Balanchine’s luminous staging, is about Christmas presents, not Christmas, and the nagging question remains: Has Hollywood made any Christmas movies in which religion is taken seriously? One that fills the bill is John Ford’s Three Godfathers (1949), an allegorical rendering of the Christmas story in which John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr., and Pedro Armendariz play a trio of gunslinging Wise Men who stumble across a pregnant woman stranded in the desert, deliver her baby, and risk their own lives to carry the child to safety. Rarely seen on TV, Three Godfathers is now known mainly to critics, most of whom loathe it. Though Ford’s sentimental streak was rarely more pronounced than it is here, I suspect that the film’s unabashed religiosity is more to blame for the bad odor in which it is held, since it is very nearly as good as the better-known She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (and just as gorgeously photographed).
Ford, of course, was a devout Catholic, a fact that tends to leave his intellectual admirers squirming with ill-concealed distaste. The Duke, as it happens, was also a believer — a self-described “cardiac Catholic,” he converted on his deathbed — and though religion figured only rarely in his films, he had an uncanny knack for impersonating strong, troubled men who tried to keep God at arm’s length but were nonetheless uncomfortably aware of His presence. Would that he had played more such characters, but Three Godfathers, along with Angel and the Badman and Trouble Along the Way, leaves no doubt of his ability to suggest the subterranean workings of grace.
Which brings us to what in recent years has become the most celebrated of all Christmas movies, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Only moderately successful on its initial release in 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life vanished from sight until the ’70s, when it went out of copyright and proceeded to become a staple item of Christmas programming at local TV stations across the country. Since it cost nothing to show, a generation of Americans was exposed to the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), an upstanding citizen who falls into despair one snowy Christmas Eve, flirts with suicide, and is rescued by an amateurish but well-meaning angel in training (Thomas Mitchell), who pulls him back from the brink by showing him what the world would be like had he never been born. Constant repetition turned the trick, and what was long a comparatively obscure movie had by the ’80s metamorphosed into an icon of American pop culture.
To read the reviews of It’s a Wonderful Life a half-century after the fact is to notice how completely the critics missed the point. “Mr. Capra has seen to it that practically all the actors involved behave as cutely as pixies,” John McCarten wrote in the New Yorker. “I suppose it’s all meant to show that there’s nothing like a real American boy for bringing out the good in the worst of us — perhaps a sound proposition but hardly one that improves by being enunciated in terms so mincing as to border on baby talk.” Yet the modern viewer who sees It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time is far more likely to be struck by its darkness, a quality brilliantly captured by David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film:
I had seen the film in England, but I had not grasped it and it had not gripped me. But in America, Wonderful Life was an institution, all over the TV airwaves at Christmas, bringing good cheer without quite letting us forget a vision of dread. For happiness here was pursued by the hounds of living hell; the American dream was so close to the nightmare. The film that failed in 1947 had become a token of uplifting fellowship, yet it was a film noir full of regret, self-pity and the temptation of suicide. How could so many people convince themselves that it was cheery?
To be sure, no other Hollywood actor could have brought so much to the role of George Bailey as did James Stewart. Casually dismissed as a genial lightweight for much of his long career, Stewart was actually one of the most gifted actors ever to emerge from the studio system; though he loved to play the gangly, stammering fool, it was his own dark side, frankly neurotic and frighteningly intense, that brought such dissimilar films as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 to blazing life. Small wonder that he was able to find the dangerous edge in the psyche of the small-town boy who suddenly found himself at the end of his rope, consumed by fear and envy and wondering whether his whole life had been a waste.
Hardly less striking is the fact that It’s a Wonderful Life is quite as religious as Three Godfathers. Even Dickens went out of his way to call his angels ghosts, but Capra makes no bones about it: Clarence Oddbody is an angel who has been sent from Heaven to stop George Bailey from committing the unpardonable sin. To be sure, Capra’s religion is the all-purpose Hollywood kind, carefully stripped of divisive doctrinal particulars, and George makes a point of mentioning that he’s “not a praying man” (a compulsory disclaimer whenever a star makes so bold as to pray on screen). Yet when push comes to shove, George asks and God answers, and it is the very blackness of George’s despair that makes us believe in the fullness of his deliverance. One never doubts for a moment that George Bailey, unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, will head straight for church come Christmas morning, there to thank God for His goodness.
I feel certain that one reason why It’s a Wonderful Life has become the most beloved Christmas movie of all time is the straightforwardness with which it asserts that God exists and is at work in the world today. Straight talk, after all, is an increasingly rare commodity in American life, especially when it comes to religion; I can’t recall the last time I heard a well-known public figure under the age of 50 declare that he was a practicing Christian (politicians standing for reelection don’t count). I suppose it’s not quite the same thing to watch a 52-year-old film in which a movie star pretends to pray on screen, but in the age of postmodernism, you have to take what’s going.
This article originally appeared in the December 1998 issue of Crisis Magazine.