Mark’s Yuletide Movie Vault

Kathy Shaidle is away this week, facing, as many of you know, a truly lousy Christmas season. We are honored to publish her here, because she is one of the best writers – on motion pictures and on many other subjects. If you’re missing Kathy, you can drop her a note directly via the email address listed here. We love her and we know you do too.

It’s not much fun guest-hosting our Saturday movie date in such circumstances. Aside from anything else, as the years go by, I find it harder and harder to find a seasonal movie I haven’t said everything I want to say about in my Christmas column of 2005, 1994, 1957… White Christmas, Holiday Inn, been there, done that. So, herewith, a celluloid sleigh ride through the remoter parts of the Christmas catalogue, all the way back to…

THE FIRST “CHRISTMAS MOVIE” MOVIE
You can find film pioneers doing cinematic Christmas cards from the earliest days – like Thomas Edison’s A Winter Straw Ride (1907), in which a bevy of well-bundled-up young ladies take a sleigh ride into a fusillade of snowballs from frisky young men. There’s no story; it’s just a staged documentary vignette. You can also turn up early screen versions of the life of Christ, such as From The Manger To The Cross (1912). But I’d say the first Christmas movie proper is D W Griffith’s A Trap For Santa (1909), which in just 16 minutes establishes so many of the conventions of the genre: An unemployed man finds himself unable to support his wife and children. “Crushed in spirit, the man seeks solace in drink,” we’re told. Not a good idea. The missus and kids bail out and, as luck would have it, Mother subsequently inherits a fortune from her aunt and moves the kids into a swank mansion. On Christmas Eve, the wee ones decide to spring a surprise and catch Santa. But who should walk into their trap? Why, none other than dear old dad, whom “grim misfortune” has led on to “desperate deeds” – ie, he’s come round to burgle the joint, unaware it’s his family’s new home. Fate thus having taught him the error of his ways, he and his wealthy former dependents enjoy a happy reunion:

It’s better than Fred Claus or A Merry Friggin’ Christmas and it’s an eighth of the length.

BEST COOKING IN A FRENCH CHRISTMAS MOVIE
“It’s not Christmas without truffles,” sighs Emmanuelle Béart in La Bûche (2000), fretting over a perfect bûche de Noël. Around her, all is gloom: infidelity, an unwanted pregnancy, death, disease, despair. But, through the wreckage, Mlle Béart gamely keeps up the Christmas baking and decorating:

It’s the closest you’ll get to seeing Martha Stewart in a French movie. In the early years of this century, when entertaining French foreign policy mandarins at Christmas, I followed Mlle Béart’s example and made them a lovely seasonal treat of a George W Bûche de Noël. Five years ago, I switched to a Jeb Bûche de Noël: it costs a hundred million dollars, and only 2.4 per cent of your guests like it. But enough beating about the bûche: Mlle Béart was wasting her time because the perfect bûche de Noël is to be found ici.

THE FIRST SANTA STORY SHOT ON LOCATION
Mr and Mrs F.E. Kleinschmidt’s Santa Claus (1925) was billed as “A Fantasy Actually Filmed In Northern Alaska”. Mr Kleinschmidt was an Arctic explorer and what the film lacks in narrative tension it makes up for in wildlife footage. For example, when Santa is shown chilling with his pals, the Easter Bunny is played by a real white rabbit. Ignore the absolutely atrocious music grafted to the film. In fact, hit the mute button:

THE BEST SNOW GLOBE
Shirley Temple, as a homesick Heidi on Christmas Eve, introduced the snow globe to the movies in 1937, pining wistfully as she stares into her snow-flecked knick-knack and sees her beloved grandfather’s house (about seven minutes in):

This scene is probably anachronistic, as snow globes only went on sale to the public circa 1889 and Heidi was published in 1880. But let’s not be a purist, because otherwise we’re down to that non-Yuletide movie with a snow globe containing a model of “Rosebud” that falls from the hand of a dying Citizen Kane, which would be kind of a bummer for Christmas.

THE FIRST CHRISTMAS MOVIE SONG
Speaking of Shirley Temple, although “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and “Winter Wonderland” predate it by two years, the first seasonal song written for the movies is “That’s What I Want For Christmas”, sung by Shirley in the 1936 Stowaway and written by my late friend Irving Caesar (“Tea For Two“, “Swanee“). Shirley is not thinking of herself:

I like pretty shoes to wear
But if I could give a pair
To poor little children everywhere
That’s What I Want For Christmas.

Let my dolls be made of rags
Fireman hats of paper bags
Just write love on the greeting tags
That’s What I Want For Christmas…

I can take it from Shirley Temple more easily than from John Lennon. And in fairness she’s a child, while he’s just childish.

In fact, she’s going to extraordinary lengths not to think of herself: Caesar told me he’d been a pacifist all his life – he was on Henry Ford’s “Peace Ship” in the first world war – and he slyly slipped a bit of that into the final stanza:

Animals that never bite
Never giving any fright
Soldier boys who never fight
That’s What I Want For Christmas.

THE VERMONTIEST CHRISTMAS
Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen died long ago now, but Rosemary Clooney hung in there till a few years back, the sole survivor of the four principals of White Christmas (1954). Most of the picture is set in the unlikely named town of Pine Tree, Vermont – unlikely because every town in the Green Mountain State is full of pine trees. But then this picture is set in a strange Vermont – a land without snow and without Democrats (as our commenters noted af ew days back). Among the many irritating generalizations in Jody Rosen’s book on White Christmas is his claim that the new songs in the film are “forgettable”. I think not. “Snow”, sung by all four in the club car of the night train to Vermont, is charming, and Bing and Rosie are very real in the lead-in dialogue. In fact, they’re two of the most real actors in pictures – and, as Sammy Cahn once told me with respect to Sinatra, “that’s not even what they do”:

Oh, and seventy-five years after the end of the war we can’t leave out this non-Vermonty scene – from the frontlines in Europe and Bing doing a bit of Yuletide entertainment for the boys on what will prove to be the last Christmas of a long conflict:

THE SHORTEST CHRISTMAS CAROL
Sick of Alistair Sim? Or even me? Thomas Edison’s Christmas Carol (1910) is ten minutes long and manages to cram in pretty much everything you need. Past, present and future get condensed into one all-purpose Spirit of Christmas, but Edison wraps it all up in ten minutes and leaves you thankful it’s not Peter Jackson in three three-hour parts each with its own forty-minute CGI battle scene.

THE LEAST MERRY “HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS”
You can’t top Judy Garland introducing the song in Meet Me in St Louis, but there’s an ironic reprise in Carl Foreman’s The Victors (1963), a big sprawling drama of George Hamilton, Peter Fonda, Albert Finney and co on the march through Europe, loving and leaving Melina Mercouri, Romy Schneider, Jeanne Moreau, Elke Sommer and other Eurototty en route. The most memorable moment is the execution of a deserter by a firing squad. Anyone who thinks Quentin Tarantino started this sort of thing with “Stuck In The Middle With You” should check out this scene:

That’s Frank Sinatra, of course, singing with Wally Stott’s orchestra. I never knew Wally as a bloke, because by the time I was moving in musical circles he had become Angela Morley and was scoring “Dallas”, “Dynasty”, “Cagney & Lacey” and just about everything else on telly in the Eighties.

Indeed, it seemed less of a sex change than a total lifestyle upgrade, as thorough as the Cinderella transformation in the film Angela scored so beautifully, The Slipper and the Rose. You can’t ask for a better name for a jobbing musician in northern England grubbing around for ten shillings a week with Bert Clegg’s orchestra at the Empress Ballroom than stolid working-class “Wally Stott”. Conversely, “Angela Morley” is perfumed with the heady swirl of Oscar and Emmy ceremonies and Hollywood parties with Larry Hagman and Henry Mancini.

Okay, one more:

THE BEST EDIBLE NATIVITY SCENE
Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) is difficult to beat. Two French PoWs have escaped from their camp and found sanctuary on the farm of a German widow. On Christmas Eve they surprise her by building a manger from wood and cardboard and sculpting the Holy Family from potatoes. One of the escapees is the gruff Jew Rosenthal. “An ancestor of mine,” he says of the Jesus potato.

I can’t find that scene out there on the Internet, but, to close where we came in, here is Kathy Shaidle’s shrewd take on Renoir and La Grande Illusion.

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We have much more seasonal storytelling for you this Christmas, including Mark’s own audio serialization of A Christmas Carol, and, a couple of hours from now, the first of this year’s Yuletide Tales for Our Time.

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