With the Christmas holidays creeping up, Alice Hart looks at the development of Christmas films throughout the years, and questions whether the true meaning of Christmas has got lost along the way.
The film industry is known for changing its mind on what is good and what is not. When Christmas first became a subject matter for filmmakers, the pictures presented offered the audience a chance to remember the traditional meanings of Christmas, rather than focusing on fights in the supermarket over the last turkey, or competitions between neighbours regarding Christmas lights.
For many adults, watching a Christmas film can be a nostalgic reminder of sitting down on Christmas day and bonding with the family over films, devoid scenes of elves swinging from Christmas trees, or presents being stolen from children. The film industry, somewhere along the way, has left behind the rue meaning of Christmas.
In 1966, a feature length cartoon version based on Dr Seuss’ book How The Grinch Stole Christmas was released. It depicted a grumpy hermit who hatched a plan to steal Christmas from the Whos of Whoville. He is bitter over the fact that others enjoy the festive period, and he turns his dog into a small reindeer, heading into the nearby town to steal anything relating to Christmas. The Boris Karloff narrated film should be praised in general for Chuck Jones’ spirited animation and direction, and its moral message that a community spirit is worth much more than wealth and possessions. Various viewers have concluded that the anti-commercialism messages that it supports are even more relevant now. It rebels against the force of corporate globalization, and encourages the gift of kindness, something scarcely seen in similar films in the same genre.
In contrast, many argue that the 2000 Ron Howard- directed remake just doesn’t live it up to its predecessor. Yes, the plot line hasn’t changed too dramatically, but the same message isn’t quite so clear in my eyes. However, I am still quite fond of this version, largely because I grew up watching it each year, and can associate positive memories with it- and also because it starts Taylor Momsen (Jenny Humphrey from ‘Gossip Girl’). The main difference between the original and the remake is that this time around, the Grinch establishes his first platonic relationship with a human; a little girl called Cindy-Lou, who fights for his acceptance into society. Both versions of the film should be praised for considering how the outsiders of the community feel at Christmas. If you think about it, many people feel alone and isolated at Christmas- both versions of the movie convey this sympathetically. It is a story of acceptance, and should be praised for highlighting existing prejudices, in addition to capturing the Christmas spirit outside the realm of religion, so don’t judge the Grinch.
Another remade classic is The Miracle on 34th Street. Fans of the 1947 original claim that it had all of the sweet, sentimental fluff that a Christmas film needs, but that it lacked colour (literally), whilst others compliment it for the cinematographic black and white footage. This fabulous holiday movie focuses on something that we all went through growing up- believing, and then suddenly not believing in Santa Claus.The plot of the film focus on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and dismissal at the beginning of a very intoxicated Father Christmas that had been hired as the instore ‘real’ Santa for children to meet. Edmund Gwenn won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in 1947, and it’s easy to see why. He is employed as the store’s Santa, and attracts a lot of fans in the form of children and parents alike with his friendly customer service. Maureen O’Hara plays divorced single mother Doris Walker with poise and sophistication, and the fake Father Christmas goes on to romance her later. Despite the movie being over 65 years old, the idea of a single working Mum trying to raise her daughter after a bitter divorce, tells a story that is relevant by today’s standards for certain. Maureen’s character has certain stiffness due to a fear of losing her job, and this explains why her on-screen daughter has been raised to accept reality- there is little time for dreaming. Before she meets Santa, her daughter Susie doesn’t know how to act like a child, despite being just 6. Like ‘The Grinch’, the end of the film celebrates a great deal of Christmas spirit, and an opposition to over-commercialism. No doubt New York has changed a lot since it was filmed, but the film (and the city’s charm) sure hasn’t.
It’s A Wonderful Life is another much-loved classic. Directed by Frank Capra in 1946, it tells the story of a frustrated businessman who is looking to get more out of life, and in particular to travel. After he contemplates committing suicide at Christmas after several financial despairs, he is visited by a guardian angel that attempts to show him how much worse off the world would be like without him. As one fan describes it online, “maybe it’s just simply what I always wanted from life and every man I want to be. If you think it’s just a Christmas film, I insist you watch it again and again, until you get the message.”
White Christmas (1954) is another popular Christmas choice, revolving around a singing and dancing duo that join forces with a couple of sisters with the aim of saving the failing Vermont inn of their previous commanding general. It has garnered respect for its portrayal of men that value each other’s opinions on how to run their business, and sisters who share a very close bond, and are willing to sacrifice their own dreams for one another. It is a story of sacrifice and love, which one might argue is the sole purpose of Christmas.
More recent Box Office Christmas hits include Home Alone, Elf, and The Muppet’s Christmas Carol. Home Alone is the movie that launched the career of Macaulay Culkin, who played the character Kevin McAllister, whose family accidentally forgets him in the middle of planning their Christmas holiday and almost missing their flight by oversleeping (the night after Kevin wishes that his family would disappear following a big argument). As his family boards the plane and begins their journey to France, his mother realises her mistake. Unable to return for a few days, he enjoys his independence at first- that is, until, he overhears two robbers, Harry and Marv, plan a break in on Christmas Eve. Despite it being a big commercial hit, I do have some reservations about this film; instead of being about the traditional Christmas values, it becomes more of a wild goose chase, with the robbers looking to catch the smart kid. My main criticism is that the plot is totally unreasonable- I have never heard of a family leaving their child behind before! However, I do accept that there are some heart-warming scenes, especially when Kevin realises that the most important thing about Christmas is his family coming together as one, with the famous quote: “Okay, this is extremely important. Will you please tell Santa that instead of presents this year, I just want my family back?”
It seems that nowadays, any film with a man dressed in red can constitute a Christmas film. This year, instead of heading to your nearest cinema and shelling out £10 a ticket to watch a second-rate Hollywood film about a turkey basting disaster or a Christmas light competition, put out the mince pie and carrot, and snuggle up on the sofa in front of a classic.