With few exceptions, tinsel is kryptonite to the cinema. A new Christmas movie is almost invariably a bad thing – and yet somehow the celebratory glossiness and cupidity of the season seem to demand some appropriate new product at the multiplex, a yuletide film with a shelf life that expires on Christmas Eve but then de-expires 11 months later. For every one good Christmas film, there are 1,000 turkeys. My heart sinks at the Santa Clause pictures, sentimental family-comedy fantasies starring Tim Allen as a Santa who, skin-crawlingly, appears to have a vigorous conjugal relationship with Mrs Santa. I wince at the memory of The Holiday, a cheesy yuletide romantic dramedy in which Kate Winslet is implausibly paired off with Jack Black. Richard Curtis’s heartwarmingly soppy Love Actually had its moments, with a shrewd sense of the dramatic charge in the challenge of simply getting everything ready for Christmas. But the Christmassiness of it all for me always stuck a fatal holly-point in the heart of both the drama and the comedy.
What is a Christmas film anyway? They tend to be secular and non-denominational, contemporary in setting, and steering well clear of the dark, difficult, complex story of Jesus’s birth itself. Family and family reunions are the eternal verities offered in place of religion, and, consciously or not, Christmas movies are inspired by the overwhelmingly powerful template of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
Of course, a Christmas film is not necessarily a film that has anything to do with Christmas. For many of a certain age, a word-association test with “Christmas film” would get “Great Escape“, the three-hour 1960 film that was a Hollywood-ised version of the sensational true story of a mass breakout from a PoW camp in the second world war. It features such Christmassy things as a feisty little Scottish prisoner getting machine-gunned on barbed wire.
For a period in the 1970s, it seemed like it was always on TV at Christmas, redolent of a terrestrial three-channel age when big movies on telly were special, and people could be assumed to be watching it together, as they might the Queen’s speech. And yet the Christmas association of The Great Escape is not entirely arbitrary. For its original audiences, the war was a living memory, and the wartime feeling of being separated from one’s family over Christmas would be very real.
The most famous Christmas film of all, It’s a Wonderful Life, owes its reputation to television. Not especially revered on its release in 1946, it fell out of copyright protection in the early 1970s, and smaller TV stations started counter-programming it against big holiday specials. To the astonishment of Frank Capra and James Stewart, its director and star, a seasonal tradition was invented and this little-regarded film began to grow inexorably in popularity and retrospective importance: America persuaded itself that it had always loved this neo-Dickensian fable, the heartwarming, heartbreaking story of George Bailey, the smalltown guy who contemplates suicide at Christmas and who is shown a vision by an angel of how things might have looked without him. It’s a Wonderful Life is not quite as sentimental as it’s cracked up to be, and the sequence leading up to Bailey’s suicidal moment is very brutal, but undoubtedly it’s hokey compared to, say, another James Stewart Christmas movie, Ernst Lubitsch’s dyspeptic 1940 comedy The Shop Around the Corner, set in bustling Budapest, replete with cynicism and pessimism.
Neither of these is my favourite Christmas film. For many, nauseated by the genre’s corniness and in love with irony and satire, the fave Christmas movie would have to be Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa (2003), starring Billy Bob Thornton as the appalling Willie Soke, an aggressive misanthropic department store Santa who hates kids and has a scam going with his elf sidekick Marcus (Tony Cox) to rob the store’s safe after hours.
The elf is a true professional, infuriated by Santa’s drunken indiscipline. But their schemes are jeopardised when the store security chief (Bernie Mac) realises what’s going on and demands a share. The remarkable thing about Zwigoff’s film is that its Santa is addicted not merely to drink and to womanising, but specifically to anal sex, on which it places a great emphasis. I can’t for the life of me think of any other mainstream film that features anal sex quite so enthusiastically as Bad Santa. Thornton’s less-than-jolly bearded figure is very keen on taking jaded moms into the store’s changing rooms – for a very specific type of romp. Finally, Marcus snaps that he’s sick of “the booze, the bullshit and the butt-fucking!”
“Sure,” says Thornton weakly, “the three Bs, right?”
In its refusal to have any truck with sentimentalism, Bad Santa is a tremendously good film, and perhaps a brilliant satire of Christmassy family sentimentality and commercialism. Yet without that tablespoonful of syrup, it somehow doesn’t count for me as a proper Christmas film. Closer to the ideal, somehow, is Elf, a similar black comedy that came out the same year. It made a star of Will Ferrell, who plays Buddy, a fully grown man in the grotesque elf costume, who was accidentally carried, as an orphan baby, to the north pole in Santa’s sack and raised as a green-jacketed helper. Then he’s sent back to New York to find his real dad. Elf has big black comedy laughs along with some reasonably sincere sentiment. It’s a film I can imagine settling back down to on TV over Christmas with guilty pleasure.
Probably the most serious, most religious Christmas film of the last decade is the heartfelt Joyeux Noël, or Happy Christmas, directed by Christian Carion: it is about the Christmas truce that occurred spontaneously on the western front on Christmas Eve, 1914. German, British and French troops laid down their arms, exchanged gifts, sang carols and played football. The event is represented as a sort of miracle, and is perhaps the one way in which a miraculous story of Christmas could be sold to movie audiences.
Happy Xmas, evil millionaires
My favourite Christmas film, however, has to be John Landis’s Trading Places from 1983. It has all the elements in place: a Christmas setting, a fable about money not being important (the story is Dickensian in sentiment, Shavian in form), a rich vein of comedy, and some sharp black comedy that doesn’t overbalance the essential heartfelt hokiness. As in It’s a Wonderful Life, the villains are the bankers. Hollywood veterans Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy are superb as the Duke brothers: sinister, ageing millionaires who have a bet going that any lowlife, given enough cash and the good things in life, can pass for a member of America’s higher echelons, and conversely that an upper-cruster will collapse when faced with financial adversity.
So they contrive to shatter the life and reputation of smug yuppie Dan Aykroyd, and effectively give his life to street hustler Eddie Murphy, who is plucked from the gutter and given a life of riches, but who then starts becoming as smug and unforgiving of the poor as Aykroyd’s plutocrat. Jamie Lee Curtis is on great form as the prostitute who helps Aykroyd, as is Denholm Elliott, playing a butler. The smart thing about Trading Places is that it conjures up the “family” trope of the Christmas movie, not in the usual sense, but by suggesting that, in combining to combat the Duke brothers’ evil, Murphy, Aykroyd, Curtis and Elliott have become a sort of family themselves. If, as a Christmas treat, I was made controller of BBC1 and was allowed to choose what film to schedule at 5pm on Christmas Day every year, it would be Trading Places.
First published online by Peter Bradshaw.