Christmas is a time for family, feasting, fun and films. Sitting in front of the television to watch The Great Escape or The Sound of Music for the 16th time is part of the ritual of familiarity that marks the Christmas season in many countries. However, there are films whose message more closely identifies with the season of goodwill. Obviously, there are many versions of A Christmas Carol , but there are other films that seem to embody something of the feelings of Christmas. This Entry seeks to introduce the reader to five films that would make a fine accompaniment to any festive season.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
It's a Wonderful Life is a perennial Christmas favourite which will be familiar to most people, whether they have seen it in its entirety or not. In the US in particular it has been regarded as a Christmas tradition for many years. This was due to that fact that many networks in the US showed it every Christmas after an oversight when the copyright was not renewed. As a result, they could show it for free! However, it did not always enjoy such acclaim. When it was released in January, 1947 it was a box office failure, barely recouping its US$3 million budget. In March, when the Oscars were awarded, it was overlooked completely. The director, Frank Capra, was one of the most popular in Hollywood, as was the lead actor, James Stewart, but the audiences stayed away. As it was the first post-war film for former USAF Lt Col Stewart, it should have been one of the most eagerly awaited films of the season. The release date has often been cited as a reason for its relative failure, given its status as a Christmas classic, but it was not seen as a Christmas film on release. It is part of the mystery of the film industry, how one film becomes a massive hit for no accountable reason while another bombs at the box office despite its apparent pedigree.
On Christmas Eve in Bedford Falls, the air is filled with prayers for the safe return of George Bailey. These prayers are heard and it is decided that an angel must be dispatched to save George from committing suicide. The angel who is given the task of saving him is Clarence Oddbody, a fairly ineffective angel who has been waiting over 200 years for his wings! We see George's life in flashback as Clarence finds out about the various forces which have led him to this lowest of points.
George's dream has always been to travel, but we see this desire thwarted at every turn by his sense of duty. He was ready to go after leaving school, but his father's death meant that he was needed to look after the family Building and Loan Company. Then he was ready to leave once more when the villain of the film, Mr Potter, decided to take over the company. The board told George that unless he stayed, his family business would pass into Potter's hands. Once again he stayed. He married his childhood sweetheart and saved up the money for a honeymoon travelling to places around the world. Just before they were due to leave, the Wall Street crash caused a run on the financial institutions of the town. One by one they all fell into Potter's hands, but the Building and Loan survived thanks to George's honeymoon fund.
The event that sends George into despair is the loss of US$8,000, picked up by Mr Potter after George's uncle leaves it on the counter in the bank. Mr Potter calls the police in to arrest George for embezzlement and he runs away. On a bridge he stands and looks into the waters, ready to jump. Then he hears a cry for help. Clarence has jumped in and George's immediate instinct is to save him. While they are drying off George tells Clarence about his problems and expresses the wish that he had never been born. Clarence grants the wish and George gets the chance to see how the town would have fared without him. Will it be enough to persuade him to return to Bedford Falls?
Each man's life is important because it touches so many others.
The Bishop's Wife (1947)
The Bishop's Wife is in many ways the polar opposite of It's A Wonderful Life despite the superficial similarities in the story. Released almost a year afterwards to huge acclaim, it then became a forgotten classic rarely seen on television. Like the previous film, it contained a performance by the lead actor, Cary Grant, which was acknowledged as one of the best of his career. He played Dudley, an angel, sent to give divine guidance to the bishop of the title, played by David Niven. The initial casting was reversed with Grant playing the bishop and Niven the angel. However, the director decided that the two roles would be more effective played against type, and so it proved.
There were many arguments surrounding the film throughout the shoot. At one point Grant and the actress playing the bishop's wife insisted on having a scene shot through a mirror as they wanted their best profiles to be shown! The producer put a stop to this by informing the actors that if he was only going to get half a face, they were only going to get half a wage!
The final preview in front of an invited audience was heavily criticised, so extra scenes had to be written and filmed before the final cut was shown. The result was a film with much humour, but also a willingness to consider the deeper issues of morality and religion.
The bishop, Henry Brougham, finds himself in a dilemma as he arranges the finances for a new cathedral to replace the old run-down church in his diocese. The chief contributor, a widow, insists that the cathedral should be erected to honour her late husband rather more than God. In frustration, the bishop asks for help and Dudley arrives on the scene. He is instantly popular with everyone except the bishop, who sees him as a very unwelcome answer to any prayer. Over the next few days it becomes clear that Dudley is taking a shine to Henry's wife Julia, in a manner that could interfere with his more important duties. While Henry realises that he has been neglecting Julia, he does not see that there is any other way for a man of his position to live. Dudley's sense of fun contrasts sharply with the staid approach of the bishop, who sees his staff, wife and child fall under Dudley's spell.
Dudley also has unwelcome news concerning the cathedral, which, he tells Henry, is not to be built according to its present plans. The bishop begins to face the possibility that he will lose not only the promised cathedral, but also his wife into the bargain. With Dudley's powers and his willingness to use them to give himself time with her, the bishop is powerless to stop this apparent attempt to steal his wife. Can Dudley resist the temptation that fate has put in his path?
The main trouble is there are too many people who don't know where they're going and they want to get there too fast!
The Family Man (2000)
In some ways The Family Man can be seen as It's A Wonderful Life for the new millennium. It is harsher and more ambivalent towards the moral issues it raises, but then so are the times for which it was made. Like many Christmas-themed films, it had a short release window to make its money. Consequently, it made just a modest profit on its US$60 million budget. The issue of the effect that the pursuit of money has on the central character is not ducked, but the alternative that is shown has its drawbacks as well. His life is hard at work, chaotic at home, and provides very few of the material comforts that you feel the ordinary hard-working family man deserves. It does not try to denigrate the moneymakers in the way that Mr Potter is demonised, but invites its audience to consider whether the effect of the pursuit of wealth is worth it for the people involved.
Cage's performance is multi-layered and insightful, with the gradual changes that are wrought proving both welcome and unwelcome to the protagonist. In fact, in many ways we can see that he is an objectionable character in both lives, but maybe this is due to his constant striving for something better. If the other films on this list prove to be a little sweet for some tastes, this acerbic meditation on modern life should revitalise the palate.
Nicolas Cage plays Jack Campbell, an incredibly successful businessman with a penthouse and a playboy lifestyle. Like Scrooge, he feels that Christmas is a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every 25 December. His lack of a family life blinds him to the needs of his married colleagues who, he insists, have to come to work on Christmas Day to finish a huge deal. On Christmas Eve he gets a message from Kate Reynolds, played by Téa Leoni, the girlfriend he left at the airport 13 years earlier when he went to London. He had promised to return to her after his year in London, but never did.
As he is reflecting on his lucky escape he finds himself caught up in a robbery at a small store. The robbery is not what it appears though. Its perpetrator is Cash, played by Don Cheadle, an angel of sorts whose job is to give Jack a 'glimpse' into what his life could have been like if he had stayed with Kate. While Cash takes over his life in the city, Jack finds himself dealing with the stresses and strains of family life on a limited budget. He becomes unpleasant, arrogant and defeated by the unfamiliarity of this existence. Only the assistance of his daughter, who is convinced that he is an alien duplicate of her real father(!), gives Jack any hope of getting through the glimpse. As Cash tells him, he is going to live this life until he learns a lesson. The question for Jack is simple. What is the lesson that he has to learn?
I know we could both go on with our lives and we'd both be fine, but I've seen what we could be like together. And I choose us.
Love Actually (2003)
Love Actually is a film which divided opinion quite strongly when it first came out. To some filmgoers it was the perfect Christmas treat, while others thought it was an uneven film with more low points than high points. In the US, it proved controversial due to the opening voiceover by Hugh Grant that referred to the events of 11 September, 2001, and the nudity inherent in one of the interconnected stories.
Writer and director Richard Curtis wanted to explore love in its many guises, from schoolboy crush to the platonic love of men who have been working together all their lives. In many ways it was a bold attempt to revitalise a romantic comedy genre that he saw as somewhat clichéd. There were echoes of his earlier work on Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, but with a wider cast of characters who were not all rooted in the upper-middle-class lifestyle. A stellar cast, including Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman and Colin Firth, each featured in largely self-contained stories that intersected at certain points within the plot. These connections were not important to the stories themselves, but provided a neat way of changing from one to the other like an updated form of the portmanteau stories of films like Dead of Night.
In the five weeks leading up to Christmas, eight different characters have to deal with love in its various forms. First we see Bill Nighy's rock star, Billy Mack, a dissolute character in the mould of Keith Richards or Mick Jagger. His career is in freefall, but he hopes to resurrect it with 'Christmas is All Around', a slightly reworded version of the Wet Wet Wet hit from Four Weddings and a Funeral. He promises to sing it naked on Christmas Eve if the record reaches Number One. Will he have to keep that promise?
Next, Colin Firth, playing author Jamie Bennett, finds out that his girlfriend is cheating on him. He goes to France to write a new novel and get over the break-up. Once there he meets Aurelia, the woman who comes in to clean for him, and slowly but surely they fall in love. Unfortunately, he speaks no Portuguese and she speaks no English. Will the language barrier prove insuperable as they try to express their feelings for each other?
Liam Neeson plays recently widowed Daniel, whose stepson Sam has a huge crush on the cutest girl in school, Joanna. The two of them try to turn him into a drummer in order to accompany her when she sings at the end-of-term show. Will it make her notice him?
Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman play married couple Karen and Harry. She suspects him of having a fling with his secretary. When Christmas Eve arrives, an unexpected present appears to confirm this. What will happen to their relationship?
Karen's brother is the new Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) whose early days at Number Ten are complicated by the fact that he has fallen in love with Natalie, played by Martine McCutcheon, one of the domestic staff. He sends her to another department, but can't get her out of his mind. Can such a mismatched attraction survive to become love?
There are three other, more minor, storylines with Andrew Lincoln's character, Mark, battling his infatuation with the wife of his best friend, played by Keira Knightley. Martin Freeman plays a lighting stand-in for an actor in a movie who wants to get to know the actress alongside him rather better. Kris Marshall plays Colin, who is sure that if he goes to America, his British accent will make him irresistible to women.
There are a host of hilarious and touching moments in this film that make it an excellent Christmas treat, especially if you are prepared to suspend disbelief and just enjoy it.
Christmas is a time for people with someone they love in their lives.
Holiday Inn (1942)
Holiday Inn is not strictly a Christmas movie, but it introduced the song that would become synonymous with the festive season, Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas'. As such, it has become regarded as an indispensable part of the Christmas experience, particularly in the US. Made during the Second World War, it had the dual task of keeping up the spirits of the American public and drumming up support for the war effort. This means that there is a fairly blatant piece of propaganda in the middle of the movie that appears desultory or even distasteful to modern audiences.
Similarly, there is a minstrel number, 'Abraham', that would be out of the question in more recent times, but which would have been unremarkable in the 1940s. Indeed, television reruns often omit the 'Abraham' song altogether. However, it was reinstated when the film was released on video and then DVD. As with many of the older films, audiences simply have to accept the differences in cultural sensibilities, or make judicious use of the remote control!
The film was released in August, 1942 in New York, with proceeds going to the Navy Relief Fund. The songs, and indeed all the incidental music, were all written by Irving Berlin. He confidently expected the Valentine's Day number 'Be Careful, It's My Heart' to be the biggest-seller from the soundtrack, but it was eclipsed by 'Easter Parade' and, of course, by 'White Christmas'. Unusually, two films followed suggested simply by these titles, but neither had the charm or long-lasting success of the original.
Bing Crosby was given equal billing on the posters with Fred Astaire, whose dancing, particularly in the 'Independence Day' firecracker number, is absolutely breathtaking. Indeed, he put so much into the film that he finished it weighing a scarcely believable 85 pounds! It also demonstrated his flair for light comedy and in many ways resurrected his career as a leading actor.
Jim Hardy, played by Crosby, and Ted Hanover, played by Astaire, are part of a song and dance trio who make a living playing the clubs and cabarets of America. Hardy decides to give up the act to open a hotel. This is a hotel with a difference though. It will open only on public holidays and will be called Holiday Inn. It takes Hardy a year to get the place ready, but he opens the doors on New Year's Eve, 1941. When Hanover reappears on the scene that night, he tells Hardy that he is now looking for another female partner. He sets his sights on Linda Mason, Hardy's new partner. Throughout the various holidays, they fight a battle of wills to get the girl until she finally heads for Hollywood. Will history repeat itself, or can Hardy win her back with the most famous song in the world?
May your days be merry, and bright,
And may all your Christmases be white.