Christmastime is here. Presumably you already have chestnuts roasting on an open fire, a turkey and some mistletoe, and your first screaming argument about who’s cooking for who and where. ’Tis the season for such timeless traditions, and along with a collective craving for manifestly ill-judged food combinations and a moratorium on our disapproval of comedy knitwear, classic Christmas movies are now a vital part of the great yuletide experience.
But what precisely is a classic Christmas movie? Timeless vintage offerings like Holiday Inn and Miracle on 34th Street are stuffed from titles to credits with all things Christmassy, yet you’ll also find films like Casablanca and The Great Escape on many festive film lists, which have nothing more to do with Christmas than Cannibal Holocaust.
Even the single greatest ‘Christmas Movie’ of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life has a pretty tenuous connection with the Holiday Season, being an often nightmarishly bleak study of a man taken to the brink of suicide by money worries.
Personally, I would add to this list any James Bond film from 1962 to 1981. In the distant days of only four TV channels, the subject of which Bond movie would be on over Christmas was part of the national debate, all the more so if it was a premiere: I can’t remember a single thing about Christmas 1982 other than the delirious excitement of Moonraker being on TV for the first time on Boxing Day.
Curiously, unlike Easter which has an embarrassment of classic Hollywood Biblical staples to choose from for a Bank Holiday afternoon on the couch (Ben-Hur, King of Kings, Barabbas, The Robe, erm, Life of Brian?), Christmas movies about actual Christmas are pretty thin on the ground – 2006’s The Nativity Story is about the best you’re going to get if you want to go full trad.
It’s a mysterious alchemy that turns a film into an endearing Christmas classic. Some element of Christmas paraphernalia can help a movie to gain entrance to the Christmas Movie Club, even if the film by and large has absolutely nothing to do with the festive season.
By contrast, setting a film around The Holidays is no guarantee of immortality. Some of the least admired comedies of the past two decades have been failed attempts to cash in on the Christmas dollar in the hope of a decent DVD/TV broadcast royalty cheque every January.
Think of Deck The Halls, Fred Claus, Surviving Christmas (with pre-cool-again Ben Affleck), Four Christmases or, God help us all, Jingle All The bloody Way.
The timeless standbys of yesteryear will always be with us but – whisper it very quietly – with each passing generation, there is a further dwindling of enthusiasm for black and white movies or for films so old that characters still wear hats or have to use phones connected to a landline.
I just about managed to get my nine year old daughter all the way through It’s A Wonderful Life last year but even then I had to compromise by using the colourised version (forgive me, Barry Norman).
Giving such perennials a miss for once, I submit this list of new modern classic Christmas movies for your delectation. There may be a few unfamiliar titles, and some appalling omissions. Such lists are intensely subjective and often contain many personal aberrations: a dear friend of mine doesn’t consider Christmas to be Christmas until he’s watched City Heat with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds!
By all means, let us know what have become the season-defining dependable yuletide classics in your household. Here you have the chance to vote for your favourite.
With that, have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on your troubles will be out of sight… Hmm. Out of Sight. Might have to watch that on Boxing Day.
On The First Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave To Me…The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Cineastes have Alastair Sim, musical lovers have Albert Finney, people of a specific age have Bill Murray, but increasingly each year, the UK’s definitive choice of Ebenezer Scrooge is Michael Caine, going out of his way to avoid the contagious spread of festive cheer in a Victorian London populated largely by felt monsters.
The fourth Muppet movie, and the first made after the death of Jim Henson, Christmas Carol was also the first to bring back genius composer Paul Williams to the fold since 1979. This is why so many of us are humming ‘There Goes Mr Humbug / There goes Mr Mean…’ as we open up the box of decorations, and why ‘One More Sleep Till Christmas’ will be your first yuletide earworm of 2016 – not that you’ll mind.
The Muppet version has achieved classic status through some brilliantly maintained equilibrium. Paradoxically for a film narrated by a talking rat and a…Gonzo, of all the Scrooge films this is probably the most faithful to Dickens’s novel.
While The Muppets provide all the laughs – except Kermit, who has poor Tiny Tim to look after (sniff) – Michael Caine plays it completely straight and his thawing-out into a new-born man of kindness is genuinely heartwarming – though the three ghosts were unable to gift Caine a decent singing voice along with a chirpier countenance.