It’s okay, there’s no one looking. You can admit it. You’re no Grinch, but you find the unending store and media bombardment of holiday tunes and images over the last couple of months more than a little wearying. And as much as you’ve enjoyed them over the years, is it really necessary to sit through those cartoon kids decorating and brightening up their forlorn little tree, or watch that reindeer with the mutated schnoz and the dwarf who wants to learn dentistry find their place in the world, yet again? And, now that you think about it, didn’t Ebenezer Scrooge have a pretty successful and comfortable set-up before all those ghosts started pestering him in the middle of the night? Why is it, you ask yourself, that all the Christmas stuff on TV and in movies has to be so darned…merry?
Well, filmmakers for decades have used the festive backdrop of the Yuletide season as a counterpoint for some rather acerbic, antagonistic and downright depressing scenes…and no, I’m not talking about those movies that start out with anti-holiday attitude and get sentimental towards the end, as in Jingle All the Way or Deck the Halls, or Santa-themed slasher flicks the likes of Black Christmas or Silent Night, Deadly Night. Movie buffs looking for something a little feistier than Tiny Tim saying “God bless us, every one” might want to check out these titles on a cold December night:
The Man Who Came to Dinner – Anyone who ever had a relative or friend overstay their Christmas visit will sympathize with Ohio businessman Grant Mitchell and his family, who get an unwanted house guest after a visiting lecturer–noted radio wit and all-around curmudgeon Monty Woolley–injures himself on their icy front step and turns their first floor into his recovery room in this 1942 comedy, based on a popular Broadway play. Demanding and condescending to the nth degree, Woolley manages to insert himself into everyone’s lives while marking the holidays with an array of visitors, from ex-cons and Asian tourists to loud-mouthed comic Jimmy Durante (whose role was inspired by his polar opposite, Harpo Marx), and letting four penguins (a gift from Admiral Byrd at the South Pole) roam around the house.
The Apartment – What could possibly be worse than having an overbearing Monty Woolley in your home on Christmas Eve? How about a suicidal Shirley MacLaine? That’s what happens to go-getting young insurance worker Jack Lemmon, who makes his way up the corporate ladder by loaning his Manhattan bachelor pad out to married company bigwigs for their clandestine trysts, in director/co-writer Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning 1960 comedy. The arrangement is mutually beneficial, until Lemmon comeshome to find the girl he’s had a crush on, elevator operator MacLaine, overdosed on pills after being dumped by executive Fred MacMurray. It’s up to Lemmon, with help from doctor neighbor Jack Kruschen, to revive her and keep her alive over a less-than-cheery Christmas.
Female Trouble – Ever get upset when you didn’t get the Christmas gift you were hoping for? Sure, we all have. Ever throw a temper tantrum over it and call your parents nasty names? Okay, not as common, but it happens. Ever smash everyone’s presents and topple the tree on your distraught mother, cursing all the way? Well, that’s what high school hellcat Dawn Davenport, played by the one and only Divine, does in John Waters’ 1974 story of how a good girl goes bad…because, remember, “nice girl don’t wear cha cha heels!”
Tommy – “Did you ever see the faces of the children? They get so excited, waking up on Christmas morning.” All except young Tommy Walker (Barry Winch)–left blind, deaf and speechless after watching his long-missing father’s murder by his mother (Ann-Margret) and stepfather (Oliver Reed)–in the haunting “Christmas” sequence of the Who’s groundbreaking rock musical, brought to the screen with his trademark visual flourish by director Ken Russell in 1975. Poor Tommy, you see, “doesn’t know what day it is. He doesn’t know who Jesus was, or what praying is.”
Trading Places– He’s lost his job, his money, his girlfriend, his townhouse, and even his butler. It’s little wonder, then, that Philadelphia blueblood Dan Aykroyd–disgraced and tossed to the gutter as part of businessmen brothers Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy’s “social experiment”–winds up spending Christmas Eve riding a city bus in a ratty Santa Claus suit, eating salmon stolen from an office party through his grimy beard, and finally attempting to kill himself before fellow experiment subject Eddie Murphy and gold-hearted hooker Jamie Lee Curtis come to the rescue.
Gremlins – Director Joe Dante and screenwriter Chris Columbus offer up a delightfully satirical send-up of small-town Americana, under attack during the holidays the malevolent and strangely endearing little title creatures, in this 1984 horror-comedy. Great use of the song “Do You Hear What I Hear,” but the icing on the filmmmakers’ subversive gingerbread house is the monologue by Phoebe Cates about what happened to her family one December and why she now hates Christmas (a speech that was itself marvellously lampooned in the film’s underrated 1990 sequel).
Lethal Weapon– Hard as it may be to remember now, there was a time that outbursts and erratic behavior by Mel Gibson were solely on-screen occurrences. Perhaps the most memorable example of same was back in 1987 and the first Lethal Weapon actioner (which, many of you will recall, did have “Jingle Bell Rock” playing during the opening credits), where a distraught and emotionally raw Sergeant Riggs (Gibson), sitting in his trailer and missing his late wife, watches Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol on TV while contemplating putting a bullet through his brain.
Roger & Me – It’s easy to make jokes about the first seven Yuletides on this list–dark as some of them are–because, after all, they’re just fictional movies and no one’s really getting hurt. For an emotional and timely real-life reminder of what is still going on in some parts of the country, however, one need only go back to documentarian/muckraker Michael Moore’s 1989 debut feature on the economic devastation visited upon his Flint, Michigan hometown when General Motors closed its factories there. One of the film’s final sequences shows Moore attempting to question his long-elusive prey, then-GM chairman Roger Smith, during the company’s Christmas Eve festivities, while at the same time Flint families unable to pay on their homes are being evicted by the sheriff.
The Ref – Imagine being forced to act as mediator for a constantly squabbling married couple you don’t even know on Christmas Eve. Then add their troubled son and dysfunctional relatives to the mix, and top it all off with the knowledge that the police are looking for you. That’s the kind of holiday that cat burglar-turned-hostage taker-turned marriage counselor Denis Leary gets to have in this wonderfully sardonic 1994 comedy that also starred Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis as the sparring spouses.
And, last but certainly not least…
It’s a Wonderful Life – What’s that, you say? What on Earth is director Frank Capra’s classic 1946 tearjerker, perhaps the quintessential holiday film, doing on this list? Well, Kris Kringle, did you ever sit down and really think about the story? Poor George Bailey (James Stewart) endures nearly 90 minutes of screen time in which his dreams are deferred and then abandoned one by one, leaving him with a barely liquid savings and loan (and we all know how well they’ve done in the past 60 years or so) staffed by a less-than-responsible relative who misplaces $8,000, and frustrating him to the point that he vents on his family and tries to drown his sorrow in alcohol. Only then–with the prospect of jail staring him in the face–does celestial intervention arrive to show Bailey that hey, this is your life, so man up and get on with it. Sure, the lost $8,000 is replaced, but you can bet the Bedford Falls folk were wondering what George really did with that money. And, meanwhile, nasty old Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) never does get his comeuppance. “Wonderful,” indeed!