On Screen: The Last Christmas Movie?

Comfort and Joy

Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth

MCA Home Video

I’ve always had a sneaking fondness for the commercialism of Christmas. It’s a childhood penchant that I’ve never been able to shake. Of course, as a Catholic boy educated in parochial schools, I was always sternly reminded of the sacred nature of the celebration. The observance of the Advent cycle, the gospel accounts, the omnipresence of the crèche all did their work. As our nun repeated for the umpteenth time that “holiday” really meant “holy day,” the class once again nodded in earnest unison, humoring her.

But though we may have humored her, she didn’t try to de-humor us. By that barbarism I simply mean that she didn’t use the “holy day” to beat up on the “holiday.” I can’t recall any lengthy lectures about the triviality or selfishness of the American Christmas that lay in wait for us outside school and church. The nuns and priests simply accepted the blinking lights, the ringing of cash registers, the compendious shopping lists, the terrible TV yuletide variety shows, and the proximity of giant plastic Santa Clauses to miniature mangers on front lawns as an inevitable and not necessarily malefic sideshow that accompanied the main event.

We kids embraced the commercialism as a wonderful fringe benefit that was an inalienable part of the Christmas atmosphere. In fact, the peculiar excitement of our Christmases derived precisely from the combination of the very sacred and the very profane.

Without sacred ceremony, Christmas would have been an unresonant carnival, but without the presents and the food and the shopping, Christmas would have been as dull for us as Easter.

What now astonishes me about those Christmases of the 1950s and early ’60s is the mutual tolerance of church and hucksters: if the former tolerated commercialism, the hucksters paid lip service to religion. Crèches weren’t confined to the downtown green; you saw them in department stores. The holiday films of the period, no matter how crass, usually made some fleeting acknowledgment of the holiday’s religious origins, and the various television musical variety shows of Perry Como or Dinah Shore usually included a ten-minute segment of religious or pseudo-religious music. (PBS shows with Pavarotti and other classical artists still feature religious music so that the talents of the singers won’t be insulted.) Between God and mammon there was a Christmas truce.

Not any more. In a society in which crèches outside church grounds are represented as assaults on the Constitution, at a time when the word religion dropped at a Hollywood party probably conjures up only visions of crazed evangelists burning books, it’s not surprising that the imagery of Christmas in the entertainment marketplace is now almost hysterically secular. More and more Christmas cards diplomatically offer “Season’s Greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas,” and network announcers between TV shows guardedly wish the audience “the best of the season and a very Happy New Year.” Television networks still air film adaptations of The Other Wise Man and other semi-religious stories, but that’s because television, especially in these days of cable, is a ravenous medium that rejects no subject matter as entertainment fodder. Will someone really watch this Bethlehem shtick? Then put it on the air.

On the other hand, when it comes to theatrical features, each of which must make a substantial profit, bottom lines dictate nastier measures. The rare Christmas movie is bound to be either sentimental slush or an ugly sick joke. Prancer was a variant of E.T.: girl meets magic reindeer. Santa Claus, starring Dudley Moore, was oafish satire. A monologue in Gremlins telling of the heroine’s drunken, Santa-garbed father getting stuck in the chimney and rotting there was bottom-grade black humor. Worse yet, worse beyond worst, was something that I think was titled Silent Night, Deadly Night, in which a psycho dressed as Santa crawls down chimneys to ax people to death. This atrocity was yanked when mothers picketed theater chains. Apparently, you can only push Mom so far.

The culture out of which our current films issue isn’t one of paganism triumphant; rather, it’s the product of an hysterical, paranoid secularism, a secularism that is constantly, nervously looking back over its shoulder, a secularism that has no faith in its own faithlessness. Those who subscribe to that culture are made especially nervous by anything that is both popular and religious. What is more popular or religious (in origin) than Christmas? So, even today, movies get made with Christmas settings, but the nervous moviemakers then try to sneer or kid or trivialize the feastday into something as neutral and harmless as Valentine’s Day. And they succeed.

What a subversive little movie, then, is Comfort and Joy. (And it was punished for its subversiveness in this country by total failure at the box office). Now on videotape, this early ’80s Scottish comedy, written and directed by Bill Forsyth, is as secular in incident, setting, and dramatic personae as   a movie can get. Its story features radio advertising, media stunts, ice cream, shopping, and shoplifting. It’s a Christmas movie without a church, clergyman, angel, misanthrope’s conversion, or reindeer’s ascension, or even the least mention of the holy day within the holiday. A few Christmas carols are briefly heard, but only on Muzak tapes in offices. The very word Christmas is mentioned no more than four times in the entire course of the movie. Yet, once you surrender to the peculiar, daffy charm of this film, it can move you precisely as the holiday itself is supposed to move you: it makes you more generously disposed towards your fellow creatures.

In brief, the plot: Alan “Dickey” Bird, a popular Glasgow disc jockey, is left emotionally shaken and stranded one week before Christmas when his live-in girlfriend, Maddy, walks out on him without the least warning. Maddy isn’t unhappy with Alan; it’s just that it’s “I-need-my-own-space” time.

Maddy is both an airhead and a manipulator (“I was going to tell you, Alan, but the subject just never came up. Please don’t be difficult.”), yet the actress playing her, with her red-haired, Celtic Princess looks and mercurial shifts of mood, makes us understand why her emotional opposite number, the ploddingly honest Alan (wonderfully embodied by the pudding-faced and quietly inventive Bill Patterson) is so attached to her. Bird seeks solace not by acquiring a new girl or in seeking some sort of vengeful payback from the world, but by doing something decent for someone, anyone. Alan Bird has lost, so Alan Bird must give. It’s a paradoxical reaction and utterly believable, especially in the Yuletide context of institutionalized giving and receiving.

Bird, by chance, becomes aware of a feud between the two branches of an Italian family whose business is the Scottish equivalent of our Good Humor wagons. Alan tries to broker a peace between Mr. McCool and Mr. Softie. (The Italians never give this outsider their real last names.) At first fancying himself the Henry Kissinger of northwest Glasgow, Alan feels betrayed when Mr. McCool only uses him to locate the Softie headquarters so that the rival’s equipment can be smashed. But Alan eventually triumphs by a stroke of entrepreneurial genius: he acquires the formula for a product that the two rivals can only produce by working together. This peace-through-profit coup, however, is not Alan’s real triumph, which manifests itself only in the last few minutes of the movie.

No plot summary can convey Comfort and Joy‘s quirky charm, for its best moments don’t occur on the main path of the plot, so to speak, but in its interstices. There are many wonderful comic or pathetic glimpses of human nature that don’t exactly advance the story but certainly enrich it: Alan, shopping forlornly downtown soon after Maddy’s departure, sees two lovers walking a few feet apart but attached by the boy’s scarf, the end of which the girl holds like a lifeline. Alan just stares in stricken wonder. Or there’s the gloriously silly yet revealing moment when Alan’s doctor pal, Ian, tries to comfort Bird by telling him that Maddy’s departure has now unfettered the disc jockey’s personality. “Why, look at this apartment! Now that she’s gone, this place reflects your personality again. Look at it! It’s all you!” Dumbfounded, Alan looks around. The apartment is completely bare. Maddy took all the furniture with her.

Forsyth mocks the melodramatic expectations instilled in us by other movies. He creates situations which we are positive will climax in sensational confrontations or violence, then pulls the rug out from under us. Two thugs, ski-masked like terrorists, attack an ice cream wagon with crowbars and are routed by a pretty girl who squirts them with strawberry syrup (these cousins don’t really want to hurt each other). Then the vandals head toward innocent bystander Alan. Are they about to eliminate a witness? “Dickie Bird!” shouts one, clasping Alan. “Can I have your autograph? And how about dedicating a song to me?”

There is no evil in Bill Forsyth’s world. That is why he is a minor artist, though a wonderful one. His benevolent embrace of all mankind makes him the ideal director of a story about a man out in the emotional cold, trying to reattach himself to the human race.

And how, finally, does Alan reattach himself? Through his amateur diplomacy? No. That triumph will last only till the ice cream clans start squabbling over the new product. Alan finally learns that it is precisely his routine work that has brought real comfort and joy into the world and would have continued to do so even if he had never involved himself in the ice cream war. Ian brings the disc jockey into a hospital ward and has him pause at the bedside of an old woman who is making a slow, doubtful recovery from an operation. Forsyth keeps this exchange dry and unsentimental but makes it quite clear both to his hero and to us that Bird’s scatterbrained radio chatter and easy listening selections have helped in keeping this invalid’s spirit’s up by giving her surrogate companionship every morning. In Forsyth’s world, sudden strokes of heroism count for little. It is how well we do our prosaic daily tasks that can make the world a better or worse place for others.

The last scene of the movie takes place at the radio station. It is Christmas afternoon. Only two people are on duty because only two people don’t have families to be with: Alan and a young workaholic technician. Over the airways goes Bird’s brand of comfort and joy. Not that of the gospels but the comfort of blarney and babble and music for an old woman stuck in a hospital, for travelers in cars or ships or hotel rooms far from home, or simply for families in their living rooms, sated with Christmas food and presents.

Alan prattles on: “Now I want you to enjoy your Christmases, folks. No more time-checks or weather reports. You just sit back, relax, and listen to some nice Christmas tunes and some of the worst jokes you’ll never repeat. Ah, my good pal has just brought me in some steaming hot plum pudding!” — the technician has just bought Alan a cold, plastic-wrapped pastry from the snack machine in the lobby — “Let me dig in for a moment.” Bird bites into the wretched, stale confection. “Hmmm. . . My, that’s good. And now, let’s listen to. .. .”

Thus, Alan “Dickie” Bird, the bringer of cheap Christmas cheer to a culture that is getting cheaper and more synthetic by the minute. Alan “Dickie” Bird, the unconsciously Christian, post-Christian hero of the very last Christmas movie.

  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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