Saturday, December 7, 2013

My Christmas Video List

Last week I posted a list of my favorite music of the season. I now present my list of must-see Christmas videos:

The Nightmare Before Christmas. Only the mind of Tim Burton could have produced such a perfect blend of my two favorite holidays. Apologies to Thanksgiving fans who complain that their favorite holiday gets lost in the rush to Christmas, but seriously—can you imagine how dull this movie would have been if Jack Skellington had fallen through the turkey door instead of the one with the Christmas tree? A bunch of monsters eat a big turkey dinner and then fall asleep on the couch while watching football. (Yawn.)

A Charlie Brown Christmas. I grew up with this classic, and I still like to watch it while decorating the tree. Because, let's face it, any tree looks good compared to Charlie Brown's. My favorite moment comes when Schroeder begins pounding out Vince Guaraldi's jazzy score during the Christmas play rehearsal, and the other characters spontaneously break into a dance of pure joy—each grooving to the music in his or her own way. Then Charlie Brown has to go and ruin the moment by screaming at everyone. What a blockhead. I've had directors like that.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Another childhood favorite, but sometimes I honestly have to wonder why I still watch it every year. It helps to think of this disturbing story of bullying and intolerance as a period piece—a sort of North Pole Mad Men with Santa as Don Draper. Thank goodness we now live in more enlightened times. These days, anyone encouraging an openly hostile work environment such as Santa did in the 1960's would be subject to legal action. And if an elf wants to be a dentist, he can now do so without fear of being condemned by society—in most states, anyway.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The original, of course—not the Jim Carrey movie (which I have never seen and probably never will see, because—Jim Carrey). As many times as I've seen it, I still thrill at that harrowing sled ride down Mount Crumpit and get a tear in my eye when the Grinch's heart grows three sizes—thanks to the brilliant animation of Chuck Jones and the heartfelt narration of Boris Karloff. "Welcome Christmas while we stand, heart to heart and hand in hand."

The Snowman. Raymond Briggs' magical tale of joy, love, and loss is told, like the book, without a single word of dialogue. The flying sequence, accompanied by Howard Blake's haunting Walking in the Air sung by boy soprano, might just be the most perfect piece of animation ever created. And if you don't shed a tear or two at the end, well, perhaps you need to be visited by a Christmas ghost or three. Speaking of which...

The Three Scrooges. There have been about as many adaptations of A Christmas Carol as there have been Christmases since it was first published in 1843. I've probably seen at least a dozen of them (though not the recent animated version, because again—Jim Carrey.) In my opinion, the following are the cream of the Christmas Carol crop, and I must watch each and every one of them every year:

Don't laugh. Critics generally agree that Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol is one of the best adaptations. (At least one says the best.) It was my introduction to Charles Dickens, and probably has a good deal to do with the fact that he is still my favorite author. I love the way the story is framed by the opening number ("It's Great to Be Back on Broadway") and curtain call as if it were a stage musical, the "camera" zooming back at each scene break to show the "proscenium" and "audience." Mister Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus, who also played Mr. Howell on Gilligan's Island) makes a fine Scrooge, and Jack Cassidy an equally fine Cratchit. The songs by Broadway composers Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (whose next project was Funny Girl) are unforgettable. My favorite is "All Alone in the World," a touching duet between old Scrooge and his younger self:
A hand for each hand was planned for the world
Why don't my fingers reach?
Millions of grains of sand in the world
Why such a lonely beach?

Leslie Bricusse's songs for the 1970 film Scrooge are also, for the most part, unforgettable. (I would prefer to forget Tiny Tim's sappy "The Beautiful Day"—especially when we hear it in a muffled reprise at his grave, as if the poor child had not only been buried alive, but still singing.) There are fine performances by Albert Finney as Scrooge, Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Kenneth More as the Ghost of Christmas Present, as well as an eccentric portrayal of Marley's Ghost by Alec Guinness. A stage version exists, and if anyone ever produces it around here, I would kill to play the Ghost of Christmas Present. He has a fantastic song ("I Like Life"), as well as some of the best lines in the show:
Scrooge: (at the home of Bob Cratchit) I want to look in the window.

Ghost of Christmas Present: It will cost you nothing, which I'm sure is good news for you.

Scrooge: Will they be able to see me?

Ghost of Christmas Present: No, which I'm sure is good news for them.

In my opinion, the epitome of all Christmas Carols, the one by which all others should be judged, is the 1951 Alistair Sim version. Gorgeous, atmospheric black and white cinematography (beware of colorized versions!), a haunting score, and superb performances by a bevy of brilliant British character actors led by Sim. Oh, he's marvelous as the "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner" at the beginning of the story, but it's his performance as the transformed Scrooge at the end that makes this version so delightful. His irrepressible laughter is infectious; you can't help but laugh along with him.

A Child's Christmas in Wales. I particularly enjoy watching this on Christmas Eve in front of a cozy fire, although there is so much warmth in the story that the fire is optional. It reminds me of the Christmases of my childhood (which is strange, because I did not grow up in 19th century Wales) and, like a cup of hot cocoa on a cold wintry day, makes me feel all warm and happy inside. By the end, as Denholm Elliott puts his grandson to bed with the following words, I'm usually dozing off, too:

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

I have other holiday favorites—It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, The Polar Express, Elf, Bad Santa (hey, a healthy dose of cynicism is good from time to time; besides, the ending is sweet in its way), and more—but I don't need to see them once a year. Those in the above list must be viewed no later than Christmas day, every year, without exception.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have videos to watch.

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