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It once was a wonderful life
New York Daily News ^ | 11/30/04 | Jack Mathews

Posted on 11/30/2004 7:18:48 AM PST by nypokerface

Good news, holiday movie shoppers: Some great Christmas ­pictures are coming your way this month.

The bad news is they're coming to your TV set and they're the same ones that have been coming for decades — "It's a Wonderful Life," "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Carol."

The last new member added to the Pantheon of Exalted Holiday Classics was Bob Clark's "A Christmas Story" — released 21 years ago! Last year's gentle Will Farrell ­comedy "Elf" may charm its way into the hall, and the current "The Polar ­Express" certainly expresses all the right messages. But most of Hollywood's recent ­Christmas movies have been lumps of something worse than coal — including this season's dumb and dumber entries, "Surviving Christmas" and "Christmas with the Kranks."

These cynical, slapstick ­ confections mock holiday tradition, then tack on redemptive endings that are without a whit of conviction. If the ­filmmakers don't believe in their ­material, how can they expect us to?

The answer is, we don't.

"Surviving Christmas" with Ben ­Affleck, released in late ­October, barely survived Thanksgiving. It will end its run with less than $15 ­million in ticket sales. "Christmas with the Kranks" opened Wednesday to some of the year's most pained ­reviews and did a less-than-stellar $31.2 ­million over the long Thanksgiving ­weekend.

These movies could stand on each other's shoulders and still not be able to see the classics — even if they used a boost from Ron Howard's' labored "Dr. Seuss's The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" and Billy Bob Thornton's bawdy, drunk, filthy-mouthed "Bad Santa." So, what's up? If Americans are still desperate for holiday ­movies — and people who bought tickets to "Sur­viving Christmas" and "Christmas­ With the Kranks" were nothing if not desperate — why can't Hollywood make 'em like them like they used to?

The answer, in a roasted chestnut-shell, is that the film business and American culture aren't what they used to be.

With the exception of "A Christmas Story," the movies we regard as evergreens were made before the breakup of the studio system and the ­cultural revolution. Through the 1930s and '40s and into the '50s, Holly­wood made one-size-fits-all products, ­movies conceived and created with the entire family in mind.

In the pre-TV era in which so many classic holiday ­movies were made, the ­local Bijou was the family attraction, and filmmakers took into account the age range and ­interests of their audiences.

Take Henry Koster's 1947 "The Bishop's Wife," starring David ­Niven as a distressed bishop, Loretta Young as his neglected wife and Cary Grant as an angel who responds to his prayer for guidance.

The couple has a small child for kids to identify with, and the angel whips up some mighty entertaining miracles — like decorating the Christmas tree with the wave of his hands.

But what makes "The ­Bishop's Wife" a classic is the romantic ­tension between the wife and the smitten ­angel, and the growing ­insecurity of the bishop. It's mature stuff that doesn't get in the way of the kids' enjoy­ment — such as when the ­bishop gets his butt glued to a chair.

Frank Capra's 1946 "It's a Wonderful Life" is a dark movie with many bright spots and one of the greatest endings. And it, too, is laced with ­sexual tension.

The scene where James ­Stewart's George Bailey throws away his dreams of travel for Donna Reed's Mary Hatch after becoming ­intoxicated by the smell of her hair, is one of the most powerful romantic moments in film — and way, way over kids' heads.

Look how the culture has changed. "Family movies" are now those that appeal to adults and to pre-pubescent­ children. Teenagers are now a separate category, as are young adults without kids.

Instead of making movies with overlapping content appealing to each age group, we have separate classes of movies organized by the 36-year-old ratings system. Each rating has its commercial ­advantages and limitations, and it's the rare ­exception that has across-the-board appeal.

The closest that modern films come to having the double layers of content for family audiences is in ­animated features like "Shrek" and "Shark Tale," where kids are mesmerized by the colors, characters and action and their parents are kept alert by the pop references.

The business of distributing films has changed, too. Though a good Christmas movie can still make it into holiday TV syndication, that's not where the big money is. A ­movie has to have a video afterlife these days, and films that people are ­likely to buy or rent only during the holidays don't have great prospects. Video chains aren't going to stock them in large numbers year-round.

Finally, we are still living in the Age of Irony. Thus, we get the ­sourness of "Grinch," "Bad Santa," and ­Richard Donner's 1988 "Scrooged," the ­Madison Avenue version of "A ­Christmas Carol" starring Bill ­Murray at his smarmiest.

Even the seemingly gentle "The Santa Clause" movies began with Tim Allen's suburban dad ­accidentally killing the real Santa, And now there's "Surviving Christmas" and "Christmas With the Kranks," glib and soulless comedies made only ­because of their studios' unwarranted faith in the drawing power of Ben Affleck and Allen.

In case they need help understanding the message shared by ­every holiday classic, I'll spell it out: When telling stories about the ­spirit of Christmas, put your faith in the ­stories, not in the stars.

Jack Mathews' Pantheon of Exalted Holiday Classics

"A CHRISTMAS STORY" (1983) Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Peter Billingsley

"MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET" (1947) Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood, Maureen O'Hara, John Payne

"IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE" (1946) James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore

"HOLIDAY INN" (1942) Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds

"THE BISHOP'S WIFE" (1947) Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven

"SCROOGE" (1951) Alastair Sim

"A CHRISTMAS CAROL" (1938) Reginald Owen

"CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT" (1945) Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet

"WHITE CHRISTMAS" (1954) Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Editorial
KEYWORDS: christmas; moviereview
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1 posted on 11/30/2004 7:18:48 AM PST by nypokerface
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To: nypokerface
My family and I watch this one every year. :-)

2 posted on 11/30/2004 7:23:50 AM PST by TheBigB (I sure could go for a charbroiled hamburger sammich and some french fried potatoes!)
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To: nypokerface

I absolutely love Christmas Story..the mom saying you'll shoot your eye out, the tongue on the frozen pole, the snow suit scene, the leg lamp. Great movie

3 posted on 11/30/2004 7:23:54 AM PST by mel
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To: nypokerface

I love these old classics. It's obvious the talent for writing and imagination for these classics doesn't exist any more. It's a shame, but our world has changed. Hopefully the future holds some nice surprises.

4 posted on 11/30/2004 7:25:50 AM PST by TexasTaysor
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To: nypokerface

I saw "It's a Wonderful Life" last SAT for the first time in a long time. I forgot what a great movie it was - truly an epic film that is way more than a Christmas classic.

I've thought time to time about how many lives that movie saved. Meaning, back in 1946, coming out of the Depression and WWII, I'm sure there were a lot of Americans very down in the dumps and perhaps suicidal (like George Bailey). The final message of "no man is failure as long as he has friends" probably lifted the spirits of many depressed/suicidal folks at the time.

Just a thought.

5 posted on 11/30/2004 7:26:07 AM PST by GianniV
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To: TheBigB; All

Now that is a classic..

6 posted on 11/30/2004 7:26:15 AM PST by KevinDavis (Let the meek inherit the Earth, the rest of us will explore the stars!)
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To: nypokerface


I also like A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart, released in 1999. And his dramatic reading of the story is still available as an audiobook, I think. He read it on Broadway for years. Although Alistair Sim's version will be THE classic for all time, Stewart does pretty well, and it's closer to the original story in the book.

But if we start comparing versions of this story, we'll be here all day! :)

PS I also have to mention Chevy Chase's Christmas Vacation. Not a "classic" in the sense of what the author is talking about (and maybe even an example of what he's against), but funny for the right audience in the right mood. I skimmed the article and missed it if he mentioned it. I would guess it's Chevy's last funny film. No wonder he seems so grumpy these days.

7 posted on 11/30/2004 7:26:22 AM PST by cvq3842
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To: nypokerface
"HOLIDAY INN" (1942) Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds

Simple, charming, extraordinarily underrated. One of my favorites.

8 posted on 11/30/2004 7:27:30 AM PST by Petronski (One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble, not much between despair and ecstasy.)
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To: TheBigB

Christmas Vacation bump. You can have an uplifting story in a cynical age. Parts of it are pretty crude, but then so was Animal House. The story holds up.

9 posted on 11/30/2004 7:28:55 AM PST by js1138 (D*mn, I Missed!)
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To: nypokerface
Kelsey Grammer did an outstanding job as Scrooge in the ABC Christmas Carol that aired this past Sunday. This story has always been near and dear to my heart. The Alstair Sim 1951 version was always a favorite.

In 7th Grade my best bud and I adapted this story for our elementary school Christmas season. Howard was the narrator who filled in many of the voices. I was {gulp} Scrooge and with a minimalistic cast, scenery and costumes we pulled it off. Given today's anti Christian bent in the ACLU and schools we wouldn't be allowed to produce this play anymore!

BTW, off subject but this morning Turner Classic Movies showed "Best Years of Our Life". Maybe this generation needs to understand the harrows of military coming home and the suffering experienced by family and friends.

10 posted on 11/30/2004 7:29:24 AM PST by Young Werther
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To: mel; All

What is not to like about the movie??

11 posted on 11/30/2004 7:29:33 AM PST by KevinDavis (Let the meek inherit the Earth, the rest of us will explore the stars!)
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To: nypokerface

Does "Die Hard" qualify as a Christmas classic?

12 posted on 11/30/2004 7:29:40 AM PST by dfwgator (It's sad that the news media treats Michael Jackson better than our military.)
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To: nypokerface

"Bad Santa" was pretty funny, but who would consider it a holiday movie? I would classify it as just a straight crime comedy - for adults only.

13 posted on 11/30/2004 7:29:50 AM PST by Mr. Jeeves
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To: cvq3842

We treated the kids to their first showing of "Christmas Story". It was a hit.

I am a great con-a-sewer of Dickens Christmas Carol movied. I liked Scrooged. My favorite is the Magoo version because of the music. Still, none of them match the written story.

14 posted on 11/30/2004 7:30:48 AM PST by AppyPappy (If You're Not A Part Of The Solution, There's Good Money To Be Made In Prolonging The Problem.)
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To: nypokerface

Well, there's nothing better at Christmas than to gather the family around the fireplace, sing some carrols and have a good viewing of "Alien."

15 posted on 11/30/2004 7:31:59 AM PST by orionblamblam
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To: mel

Last weekend I drove by some neighbors who were moving and there were some mannequin legs in the pile of refuse.

I thought about snagging them to make a lamp, but the wife would never understand.

16 posted on 11/30/2004 7:33:00 AM PST by Fierce Allegiance (Stay safe in the "sandbox" Greg! Thread degradation services available. Inquire within.)
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To: GianniV
The final message of "no man is failure as long as he has friends" probably lifted the spirits of many depressed/suicidal folks at the time.

Probably not. If I remember correctly the movie was a comparative flop at the box office and only became the classic on TV.

17 posted on 11/30/2004 7:33:17 AM PST by Drennan Whyte
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To: nypokerface

I think all the oldies are the ones people favor. Sure, most of them aren't new, but they are part of Christmas tradition. Which is what most people look forward to in the CHRISTmas season.

R-rated 'Bad Santa' a classic?? Yegh!

I haven't seen The Polar Express yet, but it's rated G, looks wonderful. I would think that it and perhaps Santa Clause 2 (also G-rated) are contemporary movies that are destined to be good enough to join the entourage of network classics.

My family and I never watch networks rerun the specials, though. We always watch them on video or DVD. All of the aforementioned (I think, I haven't seen A Christmas Story on DVD - never did like that movie) are on DVD, and would also make great Christmas gifts!

18 posted on 11/30/2004 7:35:41 AM PST by DaveLoneRanger (Knight of Gondor)
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To: AppyPappy
My favorite is the Magoo version

I haven't seen that version in years.

19 posted on 11/30/2004 7:37:28 AM PST by csvset
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To: Petronski

I love "Holiday Inn". We watch it every year.

"White Christmas", too.

20 posted on 11/30/2004 7:37:37 AM PST by cyncooper (And an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm)
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