Talking Xmas Movies with Amy Dickinson

We rate the holiday classics from the sublime to the terrifying

Talking Xmas Movies with Amy Dickinson

One of my favorite writers out there in the digisphere — one of my favorite people, period — is Amy Dickinson, author, regular on the NPR quiz show “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!,” and the eminently sane heart and mind of the syndicated advice column “Ask Amy.” I don’t know how she finds the time, but Amy has her own Substack newsletter, “Asking Amy,” and it’s a delight — highly recommended.

Asking AmyAdvice, essays and snapshots on how it feels to be humanBy Amy Dickinson

Amy and I have been crossing paths electronically for a while now, and recently we had an email chat about our favorite holiday movies, which ones get everything wrong, and why “A Christmas Story” is incomprehensibly beloved. Following is a record of the conversation. Comments are open to all, so feel free to weigh in with your own picks for Yuletide movie greatness or rancid celluloid eggnog.

AMY: I assume that Charles Dickens more or less invented the modern Christmas story as a genre, in the sense that "A Christmas Carol" is basically a magical redemption story, featuring a big reveal on Christmas morning. Do you have a favorite movie version of this classic?

TY: You’re right about Dickens creating the template for nearly every Christmas story to come; there’s even an odd little 2017 movie about it, “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” with Dan Stevens as the author and Christopher Plummer as his Scrooge-like muse. And there have been – (checks Wikipedia) – nearly 30 official movie versions of “A Christmas Carol” over the years and who knows how many unofficial ones. Of the former, the plum pudding goes to the 1951 British film “Scrooge” (retitled “A Christmas Carol” in the US), with Alistair Sim as the meanest and most slyly funny Ebenezer of them all.

Generally acknowledged as the classic adaptation, it’s a movie that gets both the darkness of the story and the joy, and, for my money, comes closest in feel to Dickens’ writing.

Of the unofficial versions – movies that take the story and port it to other times and settings – allow me to call your attention to “One Magic Christmas” (1985), in which suburban mom Mary Steenbergen is the Scrooge and Harry Dean Stanton is a creepy angel who leads her to a fresh appreciation of the holiday by, um, temporarily killing her family in a car crash. It’s a Disney movie. It’s also ultimately quite touching, even if it puts you through hell getting there. (Below is someone’s home-made trailer for the film; the official Disney trailer chickens out and just shows a shot of a snow globe.)

AMY: Are there specific elements that are absolutely necessary in order to make a movie included in the Christmas canon?

TY: You do need a Grinch in some form or another (with Scrooge himself being the original model). A Christmas movie where everyone’s already on board just isn’t very interesting. That emotional journey from cynicism to renewed belief – in the holiday spirit, in other people, in God, in one’s relatives; whatever – is what drives almost every film in the category. Those that go somewhere different, into genres like action or comedy or horror, are the ones we end up debating. If you want to start a good bar argument, ask your friends whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie.

AMY: You have had a long career as a movie critic. Do you approach this annual onslaught with dread?

TY: I do tend to adopt a defensive posture whenever a new holiday-themed film gets released, if only because the bad ones can be astonishingly terrible. Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture “The Polar Express” (2004), with its scary dead-eyed children, is a perfect example.

So is “The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” (2010), a hideously misconceived Russian version that tosses out the familiar music and ballet and replaces them with awful pop songs and farting Nazi rats. In 3-D. I wish I could unsee that movie.

AMY: I feel for you; I also regret even knowing this atrocity exists. Can you recommend a Christmas movie that some of us might not know about?

TY: Everyone knows the classic Hollywood Christmas chestnuts: “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” “White Christmas,” Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Me, I’ve always had a soft spot for the ones that use the season as a springboard for romantic comedy, and “Remember The Night” (1940) is my personal Christmas classic. Barbara Stanwyck plays a shoplifter brought home for the holidays by prosecutor Fred MacMurray and the expected Yuletide thaw happens. Screenwriter Preston Sturges brings the vinegar and director Mitchell Leisen provides the sugar and the sexiness. You like the snowy couplings of “Love Actually”? You’re going to adore this. “Remember the Night” can be hard to find on demand, but it’s currently streaming on DirecTV, Turner Classics’ Watch TCM, and Spectrum, and your library might have the DVD.

AMY: I'm so happy you mentioned "Remember the Night." I'm a huge fan of Preston Sturges but only discovered this movie last summer, while doing a rando Sturges deep dive. I absolutely cannot believe that this sweet film eluded me for so long.

Here's an advice question: When I married my husband and moved into a household with his four adolescent and teenage daughters, I insisted that we all watch “A Christmas Story” together for our first Christmas. They had never seen it. They all hated it. The marriage has somehow survived. I'm still working on forgiveness. Your thoughts on this strange classic?

TY: It is strange, and I’m amused that it has become THE Xmas movie for so many people. I came to it more prepared than most, having already read the Jean Shepherd short stories on which the movie is based. As is often the case when you’ve read the book before seeing the film, I still prefer the movie I saw in my head to the movie that actually got made. But it’s cute and for audiences from a particular part of the country and/or of a particular generation, it’s an intensely nostalgic experience.

AMY: I met many of the cast of (former child) actors from the film during a very strange sort of fan-con in Hammond, Indiana, which was Jean Shepherd's hometown. It was a somewhat grim affair. I had to rewatch the movie a couple of more times as a cleanser. (I will say this much: *some* of these former child actors don’t seem to have quite grown up — although I did get an autographed picture out of the deal.)

AMY: Can you share a Christmas memory involving a Christmas movie?

TY: I have a vivid memory of being taken to the theater at a very early age to see a Santa Claus movie, one which traumatized me with its vision of an eyeball at the end of a stick that Santa used to spy on children around the globe. For years I wasn’t sure whether the movie actually existed or if I had dreamed it up after one too many frosted Pop-Tarts. I recently Googled it, and, yep, it exists: “Santa Claus” (1959), a dubbed Mexican film that got a US release in the early 1960s. The trailer’s on YouTube, and it’s just as frightening as when I was six. The whole movie’s available, too. You watch it. I can’t.

TY: Back at you, Amy: What’s the Christmas movie that you remember most clearly, the one that conveys what’s best about the season to you?

AMY: All of my Christmas movie memories originate with my late mother, Jane, who was an extremely avid and knowledgeable movie buff and a very early adopter of VCR technology back in the day. She would set her alarm to wake up at 3AM to record a movie off of AMC, and she had a pretty deep shelf of tapes.

My mother introduced me to “Christmas in Connecticut” (another adorable Barbara Stanwyck classic), “The Bishop's Wife,” and “Meet Me in St Louis.” We watched these — and “Holiday Inn” — together every year. I still love them all. To me, all of these films have the patina of World War II about them; a beautiful sense of celebration without being too bogged down by the Christmas message.

My all-time favorite Christmas movie, which she also introduced me to, is “Desk Set” — an absolutely charming Tracy/Hepburn classic with a great supporting cast including Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, and Gig Young. The movie takes place almost entirely in the offices of an early television network — quite obviously 30 Rockefeller Plaza. I worked in that building for a few years, in a job strikingly similar to the job of the fact-checkers in “Desk Set,” and I was reminded of the film every single day. A million years ago I found an original poster for the film at a flea market. Years later, I was able to show off my love for this movie to Nora Ephron, whose parents wrote the charming and witty script.

AMY: I remember going to the theater with my mother when “Sleepless in Seattle” came out; I was very mean about Meg Ryan on the way home, but now I honestly love this little movie, partly because I remember seeing it with my mother.

TY: You were mean about Meg Ryan? What kind of Grinch are you?

AMY: And let me add that my mother was the first person I've ever heard of who categorized “Die Hard” as a Christmas movie. She loved it, and I do, too.

“Home Alone” and “Elf” are two that I still enjoy with my own kiddos. I am proud to have screened “Home Alone” for my grandchildren, projected onto the wall of our house. They had never heard of it and were the perfect ages to LOVE it. And they did.

TY: Do you have a personal worst? What are the ways that Christmas movies can go wrong?

AMY: Well, Ty, as I'm sure you know, I am an extra in the worst Christmas movie I'm personally aware of: The truly execrable “Fred Claus.” I am both proud of and deeply ashamed of my actual presence in that movie. (clip below)

That's me dropping money into the bucket, mugging wildly as I do.

Care to watch it again? Of course you do! Here you go:

Don't get me wrong, I love me some Santa Claus, but I don't like Santa movies.

TY: Okay, you win -- I can’t beat actually being in a Christmas movie. Happy holidays, Amy. May a VHS of “Fred Claus” never darken your stocking.

AMY: And for a really wonderful Christmas bonus, watch this really interesting conversation about “It’s a Wonderful Life,” hosted by the Smithsonian (it is around 90 minutes long). I watched it while decorating my Christmas tree, adding as special mental-ornaments many fascinating historical insights about this Christmas classic.

I hope you all have a truly wonderful, safe, healthy and lovely holiday season.

TY: Same here, dear readers — may you and your loved ones enjoy a safe and joyous holiday time together! And best wishes for 2022.

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