Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: My traditional Christmas

So here’s the situation, having just come off a binge of moviewatching owing to the annual SEFCA (Southeastern Film Critics Association) vote being today, I took a look at what the next couple weeks are going to be like and I was struck by what I saw. Perhaps I should have ducked, but I didn’t. And here’s how it works out—it is within my grasp to take off both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The stars—and the studios—have not been in the alignment necessary for this for some considerable time. So considerable a time, in fact, that I can’t remember when it was.

Here’s how this comes into being. Owing to the way the awards season films have worked out this year, I’ve already seen most of the important films that open between now and Christmas Day—Black Swan, The King’s Speech, The Fighter, True Grit and I Love You, Phillip Morris. So long before Christmas, those will be reviewed and nestled all snug in their beds (or at least in the pages of the Xpress). Now, this week we find Black Swan opening at The Carolina and the Fine Arts, The Fighter opening most places. They’re joined by How Do You Know?, Tron Legacy and (oh dear God) Yogi Bear.

Christmas week—which is oddly split up—finds True Grit, Gulliver’s Travels and Little Fockers opening on Dec. 22, while The King’s Speech opens Dec. 25 at The Carolina and the Fine Arts, and I Love You, Phillips Morris also opens on the 25th, but only at The Carolina. That means that only two titles will need reviewing (assuming no one pulls any surprises on me) and they open on Wednesday. Now, were I to forego the delights of a “Screening Room” that week—and I think that after all this time I’m due the break—I should be free to spend Christmas like a normal person. At any rate, as normal a person as I ever am or am likely to be.

In that spirit, my notion was to accompany the days with traditional—my traditional—Christmas fare from days of yore. Now, here’s what traditional Chistmas fare means to me: A Christmas Carol (1951), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Holiday Inn (1942), The Thin Man (1934) and The Lemon Drop Kid (1951). These would be joined by Whoopee! (1930), Road to Rio (1947), The Boy Friend (1971) and High Time (1960). The first three I merely associate with Christmas in a general way—perhaps because I first saw them at Christmas. The last I know I saw at Christmas once, but I think it may also have a Christmas sequence in it. Oh, as an idea it seems so perfectly simple. Yes, well, it doesn’t work out that way.

I’d already ruled The Thin Man out because we’re running it at the Asheville Film Society on Dec. 28. Then I realized that somehow or other over all these years I’d never actually obtained copies of A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street or Holiday Inn, though I may have the last named on laserdisc (which does me no good at the moment). Ah, but surely, surely reliable TCM will be showing these, right? Oh, they’re showing a version of A Christmas Carol, but it’s that fairly lousy 1938 one that MGM knocked out very haphazardly. No sign of Holiday Inn or Miracle on 34th Street. In desperation, I sought out the Fox Movie Channel. Certainly they must be running Miracle on 34th Street. After all, they own the damned thing. Well, they’re also Fox Movie Channel, so, no, of course, they’re not running it.

Yeah, sure I’ve still got a few of the titles on my list, but I’m missing three of the cornerstone films. I suppose if I was feeling frivolous I could order them—surely the road to my house won’t be impassable with snow all the way from now until Christmas—and I may well do that very thing. Oh, what the hell, I just went ahead and did it. Of course, it was never much in doubt that I’d cave in, was it? I am not the strongest-willed person on the planet when it comes to this sort of thing. So now, if Amazon is good and the man in charge of the snow remembers how to stop it, I’m set for my traditional Christmas. I might even get hot and toss in Going My Way (1944), even if only the last little bit of it actually deals with Christmas, but, oh, that last little bit is—well, anyone who doubts Leo McCarey’s greatness as a filmmaker should watch the last seven shots of that admittedly rather treacly movie.

I’m sure many other traditionalists will cluck and tut-tut over a couple of missing titles—notably It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and White Christmas (1954). Maybe if Wonderful Life was part my childhood, I’d feel differently, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1970s when it fell into the public domain—meaning anyone with a copy of it could run it for free—that it became a TV staple. It was, in fact, the first Frank Capra picture I ever saw that I disliked when I caught up with it in 1972. And that was a surprise because I was then high on Capra, thanks to his autobiography The Name Above the Title being fairly new and such books on movies being fairly rare at the time. Here’s a case where I think the original reviewers and contemporary audiences were fully justified in panning a film and staying away from it en masse. Others will sharply disagree and that’s fine, they can have the damned thing—so long as they don’t want me to watch it.

White Christmas, on the other hand, was a childhood staple, and as a child I thought it was the bee’s knees. In the intervening years, however, it’s become virtually unwatchable to me. Why? Well, I feel there are only so many times even the staunchest Irving Berlin admirer can listen to “What Can You Do with a General?” and “We’ll Follow the Old Man” without cracking. I’ve also never been keen on Vera Ellen. And then there’s the DKF—or Danny Kaye Factor. With the possible exception of Jerry Lewis, no star of that era can make me change the channel faster. A friend of mine has come to like the film—and like it better than Holiday Inn—ever since he saw it on the big screen in a theater. I’ll take his word for it, though I probably wouldn’t pass up a big screen showing of it. Why, I do not know.

So there you are. After years of coming up with various alternatives to traditional Christmas movies, I’m going to spend this year wallowing in them. Perhaps, for me, that’s the ultimate move into the land of the non-traditional. Next year, I’ll probably resume my contrarian ways.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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14 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: My traditional Christmas

  1. brianpaige

    White Christmas is a movie that I have a hard time stomaching for different reasons. The whole subplot between Crosby and Rosemary Clooney is so utterly forced that it turns me off every time (why is she THIS mad at him?). It’s like they were doing a play on the Babes on Broadway subplot where Judy Garland got mad at Mickey Rooney for him possibly using orphans to further his own career…except in that case he kinda WAS. White Christmas would be a nice 100 minute movie, but at 2 hours it’s just far too long. Cut out the Choreography number, trim that lame subplot, and then we’re in business.

    You know the weirdest movie I find myself watching at Christmas or New Year’s time? All Through the Night with Bogart. There’s no reason why either, other than maybe getting it for Christmas one year in a Bogey box set.

    As far as It’s a Wonderful Life goes, the more times I see it the more the flaws bother me. It was definitely best on first viewing, but on repeat viewings too much stuff bothers me (Potter getting away with stealing the money, no one saving Harry’s life in the alternate reality, the notion that white bread small town America can’t co-exist with a sin din district). Go to most towns and there are a variety of areas: nice suburbs, downtown, ethnic neighborhoods, and yes, the sleazy strip joints and bar area. Would Potter really want the entire town to become what we see in that dream reality? Wouldn’t this drive the price of his real estate down and thus hurt his own wallet? You would think Potter would rather tear down shacks, get rid of the riff-raff, and build a country club for the privileged elite. Potter is an evil, rich mogul, but he doesn’t strike me as a slum lord.

  2. DrSerizawa

    White Christmas was on TV last weekend. So, opportunities for self-torture always exist. Our family tradition is to watch Christmas Vacation. But we’re weird. I just love the line, “We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny f***ing Kaye.”

    I might just inflict Santa’s Slay on them too.

  3. Ken Hanke

    The whole subplot between Crosby and Rosemary Clooney is so utterly forced that it turns me off every time (why is she THIS mad at him?).

    It’s a 1950s musical. I expect little.

    Cut out the Choreography number, trim that lame subplot, and then we’re in business.

    Shoot Danny Kaye and then we’re in business.

    You know the weirdest movie I find myself watching at Christmas or New Year’s time? All Through the Night with Bogart

    Odd choice, yeah, but I have nothing against it.

    You know, I have so many reasons for disliking It’s a Wonderful Life that I never made it to the logic flaws.

  4. Ken Hanke

    White Christmas was on TV last weekend. So, opportunities for self-torture always exist.

    Gee, and I missed that opportunity!

  5. Chip Kaufmann

    How about a Bob Clark double feature of BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) and A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983)?

  6. Ken Hanke

    How about a Bob Clark double feature of BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) and A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983)?

    Well, we’re halfway there with running Black Christmas on Dec. 23 for the Thursday Horror Picture Show.

  7. DrSerizawa

    Black Christmas 1974 is on TCM at 2AM (mtn time) on the 18th, for those who are interested.

    A Christmas Story just might be the most overplayed Xmas movie in history. Whenever it comes on the screen I run from the room screaming like a girl. Or, well, maybe I just change the channel while moaning. But you get the picture.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Whenever it comes on the screen I run from the room screaming like a girl. Or, well, maybe I just change the channel while moaning.

    The former image is much more evocative.

  9. Kevin F.

    Watch the Richard Williams animated take on A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1971) –

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8817517652455175582#

    Williams did the brilliant animated sequences in Richardson’s CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1968). My xmas traditions are films that happen to take place around xmas, but are themselves not explicitly about xmas. For example, Gilliam’s BRAZIL and DIE HARD.

  10. Ken Hanke

    Looks like there’s a new twisted Xmas film on the horizon. Any chance of The Carolina getting this one???

    I’d heard about this one, but that’s the first I’ve seen the trailer. I know The Carolina schedule through Xmas, so I can pretty safely say it’s not playing here this holiday season. Probably just as well, since it’d get lost in the big end of the year push. It’s definitely a possibility for the Thursday Horror Picture Show next year, though.

  11. Ken Hanke

    My xmas traditions are films that happen to take place around xmas, but are themselves not explicitly about xmas. For example, Gilliam’s BRAZIL and DIE HARD.

    The Thin Man comes under that heading. In fact, it covers both Xmas and New Year’s. The Devil Doll has a Xmas setting, too — and the classic line from the police detective about the streets being full of “religious fanatics” at this time of year.

  12. BigAl

    My Christmas tradition is the A&E made-for-TV movie “The Crossing”. Nothing brings out my holiday spirit like seeing the Hessians impaled on our bayonets on Christmas Day, 1776.

    Oh, yeah, and Washington telling Knox “Don’t swing your balls, Henry, or you’ll swamp the boat!”.

    DIE HARD is a tolerable runner up. Yippie Kay-A…

  13. Ken Hanke

    Nothing brings out my holiday spirit like seeing the Hessians impaled on our bayonets on Christmas Day, 1776

    You were there no doubt.

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