There’s no accounting for taste, particularly my taste in holiday movies, but as Haruki Murakami so aptly observed, “Whether you take the doughnut hole as a blank space or as an entity unto itself is a purely metaphysical question and does not change the taste of the doughnut one bit.” The object here is to dunk a few speculative doughnuts in the holiday punch and see if any stand up to closer examination.
The Bishop’s Wife
The slate of long-treasured Christmas classics is rife with sentimental favorites. I haven’t missed screening White Christmas since 1958. Almost entirely overlooked, however, is 1947’s The Bishop’s Wife, remade somewhat clumsily in 1996 as The Preacher’s Wife with virtually the same plot but less charm.
The set-up is simple: Carey Grant is a dashing and urbane angel whose mission has something to do with assisting a frustrated cleric, a bishop played by David Niven, an actor whose career was primarily in playing dashing and urbane, somewhat under-energized, British toffs. From the start, however, it’s clear that the angel has a far more powerful effect on Loretta Young, the bishop’s neglected spouse, a sad beauty brought to vivacious animation by the attention given her by the dapper angel. Annually overlooked in the schlockfest that begins with My Little Pony:Winter Wishday, The Bishop’s Wife is a reminder of the nuanced emotional charge the studios’ in-house screenwriting teams could bring to any sort of material. Grant’s performance as Dudley, an angel with a cleft chin and great suits, is complicated, combining heavenly serenity with a hint of self-satisfied seduction. The only critical piece I’ve seen on the film goes right to the real question: Is this angel a player?
“ … the script touches on all the wholesome tropes of the Christmas movie without dipping too deeply into schmaltz. Dudley helps locals ice skate. He magically redecorates a Christmas tree. But, as was often the case with films made during the era of the production code, there are hints of something more dangerous beneath the surface. What exactly are Dudley’s intentions towards the Bishop’s Wife? The polished Cary Grant persona never entirely concealed the promise of nocturnal transportation.”
“Nocturnal transportation” is a phrase rarely used in scriptwriting these days, but I suppose one’s imagination may occasionally wander into unseemly thoughts as Loretta is in semi-swoon, but no matrimonial harm is done, and the angel’s work with the bishop is clear by the end. No “nocturnal transportation” in this elegant Christmas tale.
Routinely included in the pantheon of worst Christmas movies, Surviving Christmas is frequently cited as the nadir of Ben Affleck’s acting career. Panned in the New York Times, the reviewer noted that the film, “found a clever way to use Ben Affleck’s disagreeable qualities. The actor’s shark-like grin, cocky petulance and bullying frat-boy swagger befit his character.”
No argument from me on that score; despite the rancor with which the film was reviewed, however, Affleck and a tone perfect supporting cast prove that in some instances, when it comes to disagreeability, more is more. Relentlessly annoying, Affleck sells his self-obsessed hedonism with true commitment. He’s alone and petulant, cocky and wealthy enough to rent the family living in his childhood home. Yes, he bullies James Gandolfini, essentially a grumpy Tony Soprano with a pitch perfect deadpan sense of humor. Less dangerous than Tony, certainly, somewhat sweeter, in this role, Gandolfini practices the same simple expedience when threatened, first meeting Affleck when knocking him to the ground with a snow shovel. Affleck’s rented mother, Catherine O’Hara, delivers biting commentary on her wretched with weary understatement, and no critic could have held Affleck in greater contempt than the sister who refuses to be rented, played with acerbic charm by Christina Applegate.
The film’s gentle resolution includes a generally happy ending, transformation of character, and a series of jokes about incest. Jolly holiday fare? In its own way, sure. Knuckle gnawing awkwardness? A Christmas bonus!
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Had enough holiday treacle? Looking for a little grit in the Christmas punch? We’ve seen Die Hard creep into the Christmas pantheon when we weren’t looking, popping up as a widely celebrated “holiday” fable despite its tangential attachment to Christmas. There are other eminently watchable films that have at least a scene or two set at Christmastime but are not truly in the holiday film category: Little Women, Trading Places, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Meet Me in St. Louis, Gremlins, While You Were Sleeping, Carol, The Holiday, The Family Stone, and Love Actually, the most Christmas-centric of the bunch. If you’ve heard that Bruce Willis Yipee-Ki-Yay once too often, you might enjoy an infrequently screened oddity with a quasi-holiday setting which makes Die Hard look positively cozy. I cannot begin to describe the plot of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, featuring Robert Downey, Jr. and Val Kilmer, adapted from the novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them. I think this is the first time I have been forced to post a trailer in the hope of introducing an under-appreciated classic: Enjoy!
Last Chance For Christmas
On the other end of the spectrum, Last Chance for Christmas is a lovely, family friendly, goofy, sappy, feel-good romance set at the North Pole and at a reindeer ranch in Alaska. Unassuming and fun, this one is several cuts above the usual saccharine holiday romantic comedies, a pretty genial polar romp with actual development of character. It’s hard to get past the 750 Days of Christmas popping up in mid-November; Hallmark and Lifetime alone are responsible for several hundred Christmas themed movies.They’re made inexpensively, quickly, and always involve wrapping presents, finding the right tree, and baking cookies. We can almost smell the gingerbread. Every once in a while, however, something unexpectedly affecting escapes the treacle-fest, something deft, clever, even quirky. So, Last Chance – family friendly and smart.
You’ll be able to follow the plot. Prancer’s got a stress fracture in a hind foot. No Prancer, no Christmas; the North Pole is in a tizzy. Behind every successful man there’s a woman, Lifetime suggests, and feckless, befuddled Santa is lucky enough to have a tough and competent better half to whip the
slaves elves into shape. She sends the reindeer trainer, a square jawed hunk better with animals than with people, to a beleaguered reindeer ranch in Alaska. Tough time for reindeer ranches too and for the gritty single mom staving off foreclosure. Formulaic, sure, but the kid and the reindeer are winning, and the goof from the North Pole has an awkward “Aw Shucks’ ‘ decency reminiscent of Gary Cooper as Professor Bertram Potts in Ball of Fire.
Time’s running out; Christmas is almost here. I’ll have to wait until next time to wallow into the quagmire of holiday specials. For the moment, I’ll just suggest that Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas is a Jim Henson gift to treasure.