Let me just spell out my position at the beginning: almost all Christmas films are brilliant. Obviously the Great ones are great. The Apartment is a masterpiece. It’s A Wonderful Life is gorgeous. Scrooged is still funnier than anything released since. But I like the terrible ones, too.
Christmas films are like Christmases themselves - even the bad ones are special. The Holiday makes no sense whatsoever, but neither does Christmas. It’s the most wonderful time of the year precisely because of its topsy-turvy nature, which is at the root of so many festive traditions. From Santa’s elves (which originate in ancient European folklore as goblins escaping the underworld during the twelve days of Christmas and wreak havoc in the world of man) to egg nog (<—WTF), “mince” pies, obligatory daytime drinking and the whole, pagan notion of chopping a tree down and dragging it into your house as some kind of metaphor about life’s triumph over the death of winter.
We seem to have a deep-seated need to shake things up at this time of year. Perhaps the darkness is a CTRL+ALT+DELETE moment when we can reboot ourselves. The most famous Christmas films are really all different versions of this same story: chaos enters someone’s life, but they emerge from it a better person. I’ve learned a few more lessons as a Christmas movie addict. I thought I’d share some of them this week. If you’d like to do the same you can tweet us @thepooluk.
The FILM: THE Apartment
THE LESSON: Know when to shut up and deal
When it comes to urban isolation and the scuzzier side of romance in the metropolis, Sex and the City has nothing on Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic. Jack Lemmon plays Bud - a lonely office drone, cajoled by his four bosses into letting them use his grotty apartment to conduct their extramarital affairs. The object of his affections is Shirley MacLaine’s Fran, unfortunately she’s also the mistress of one of his bosses…This whip-smart comedy is a wry reminder that love is not small because it’s inside little things, like a plate of spaghetti or a game of cards.
THE FILM: It’s A Wonderful Life
THE LESSON: Anybody can change the world
I know some people find It’s A Wonderful Life schmaltzy. I mean, it is schmaltzy, but I love it anyway. I love that James Stewart, who really was a war hero, refused ever to play one. In fact he was so changed by his experiences as a bomber pilot that he’d been considering giving up acting altogether when the part of George Bailey came along (apparently the great Lionel Barrymore - evil Mr Potter in the film - convinced Stewart to take the role, saying that acting could do some good in the world by telling stories like this). It’s a Wonderful Life is an annual illustration that if you want to change the world, it’s ok to start small.
THE FILM: Elf
THE LESSON: Optimism is a choice
Ostensibly nothing more than a straightforward, quotable lolfest, in fact Elf is the exploration of a radical philosophical idea - what if innocence is not something innate that people lose, but something anyone can acquire? What if innocence and optimism were choices available to everyone, regardless of their experiences? Buddy represents the triumph of nurture over nature, while the other characters have to decide whether to abandon easy cynicism in favour of something more difficult, but rewarding - staying positive in the face of reality. All that and burp jokes - what a film.
THE FILM: Trading Places
THE LESSON: The Love of Money is the Root of All Evil
If you haven’t watched Trading Places in a decade or two and fancy giving it another whirl, don’t expect it to have aged well. It is (as people say on the internet these days) “problematic” - as politically incorrect and morally askew as it’s possible to be. It’s also bloody funny, with Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd both at the height of their not inconsiderable powers. When I rewatched it last Christmas I ended it unexpectedly reminded of the inevitability of the 2007 financial crisis and how unbelievably weird the 80s were.
THE FILM: Home Alone
THE LESSON: You’re never too small to face your fears
My eldest son is obsessed with Home Alone. I love it, too, because it’s a kids’ film that plays to kids first and foremost. No prim morality tale, it delivers its message in a way that appeals to a child’s strong sense of natural justice and deep desire to see baddies get an absolute pasting.
THE FILM: Scrooged
THE LESSON: There are plenty of ways to be good
Last but not least, one of my absolute favourites - although I love most of the takes on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the original book. Dickens was absolutely insistent that ghost stories were a vital part of the season and though the tradition didn’t really stick, it did give us the greatest ghost story in history. I love everything about Scrooged (what’s not to delight in? Even the busker is played by Miles Davis FGS). Most of all, though, I love Bill Murray’s Frank Cross and the fact that (unusually for a Christmas Carol adaptation, unlike the book) he’s still essentially himself (funny, weird, cool) after his moral transformation.