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Mark Steyn

Mark at the Movies

Mark's Yuletide Movie Vault

For our Christmas movie selections this year we've referenced everything from The Apartment to Rocky IV. But, as Christmas Day approaches, it gets 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, like 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 Santa Clause 2 or Jingle All The Way and it's an eighth of the length. You'll find it on a wonderful DVD set called A Christmas Past: Vintage Holiday Films 1901-1925.

BEST COOKING IN A FRENCH CHRISTMAS MOVIE
"It's not Christmas without truffles," sighs Emmanuelle Béart in La Buche (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. For most of this century, when entertaining French foreign policy mandarins at Christmas, I've followed Mlle Béart's example and made them a lovely seasonal treat of a George W Bûche de Noël. But this year, in honor of the huge groundswell of popular demand for a certain Florida governor, I've decided to go with a Jeb Bûche de Noël.

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.

THE BEST SNOW GLOBE
Shirley Temple, as a homesick Heidi, introduced the snow globe to the movies in 1937, pining wistfully as she stares into her snow-flecked knick-knack. This scene is probably anachronistic, as snow globes only went on sale to the public in France in 1889 and Heidi was published in 1880. Be that as it may, the most famous snow globe in non-Yuletide movies is the one that contains a model of "Rosebud" and falls from the hand of a dying Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.

THE FIRST CHRISTMAS MOVIE SONG
Speaking of Shirley Temple, though "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"). 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.

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 ROSIEST CHRISTMAS
Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen died long ago now, but Rosemary Clooney hung in there till a couple of years back, the sole survivor of the four principals of White Christmas (1954). 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. And Rosie's solo, "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me", remains the torchiest number in any Christmas movie.

THE SHORTEST CHRISTMAS CAROL
Sick of Alistair Sim? 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 by the end of the ten minutes it's hard to argue anything vital's been left out.

THE BEST NATIVITY SCENE
Renoir's Grand 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 Jesus, Mary and Joseph from potatoes. One of the escapees is a gruff Jew. "Baby Jesus, my blood brother," he observes.

And finally, on a topical note...

THE FIRST TERRORIST CHRISTMAS MOVIE
A barefoot Bruce Willis swings into action when a gang of evildoers hijack a Christmas Eve office party in Die Hard (1988).

THE FIRST TERRORIZED CHRISTMAS MOVIE
That would be The Interview.

from Mark at the Movies, December 20, 2014

 

Christmas in the Trenches

For almost the entirety of this century, I've been touched by the emails I receive this time of year from US, Canadian, British and other troops spending Christmas in such unfestive climes as the Hindu Kush and the sands of Araby. Seasonal soldiering is tough on the warriors, and on their families back home. For our Saturday movie date this week, here are a few Yuletide movie moments with a military theme: The best "White Christmas": The quintessential Hollywood Christmas image is homesick ...

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The Apartment

It's the Christmas movie season at SteynOnline

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A Baroness on Barrenness

P D James died on Thursday, the undisputed heir to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers as the "Queen of Crime", although she did not care for either comparison ("Such a bad writer," she sniffed of Dame Agatha). But in her 94 years she did a lot of other things, too: She was a Conservative peeress in the House of Lords, and her time in the bureaucracy (she was a Home Office civil servant) made her an effective chairman of things - whether of the Booker Prize for Fiction, or committees concerned ...

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Primary Colors

A limousine liberal's valentine to Bill Clinton

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Interstellar

Christopher Nolan gives progressives the agrarian utopia they've always wanted

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Mean Girls

Thanks to The New York Times, I find myself keeping company I don't usually keep: Lena Dunham, Cary Elwes, Russell Brand, Tina Fey...

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Wolf

We always like to pick out a Halloween horror for All Hallows Eve, and this year, what with all those "lone wolves" we keep hearing about, I've plumped for a whiskery Jack Nicholson...

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Outbreak

Now that Ebola has been loosed upon the land, I thought it would be jolly to have a killer-virus picture for our Saturday movie date...

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Air Force One

After that White House security breach - and the attendant revelations that the money-no-object 40-car-motorcade reflector-shades-a-go-go school of presidential protection is even more risible than one suspected - I started thinking about take-the-White House thrillers for this week's Saturday movie date. There were a handful of them just last year - White House Down, Olympus Has Fallen. But the biggest breach of presidential security in recent years was airborne: Air Force One, from 1997 - or ...

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Sir Dickie in the Shadowlands

Yesterday would have been Richard Attenborough's 91st birthday. He died five days short, at a grand old age, and as the grand old man of British film, garlanded with knighthoods, peerages, fellowships and life presidencies of worthy bodies. I met him when I was very young, in his capacity as chairman of Capital Radio in London, and he gave me what proved to be excellent advice, although I neglected to take it for several decades. It was an amazing seven-decade career stretching back through ...

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Good Will Hunting

We had many requests for a Robin Williams pic for our weekend movie feature, but I have to confess I was never the biggest fan...

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Fahrenheit 9/11

Steyn on the high water mark of Michael Moore's cultural moment

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Independence Day

For the post-holiday weekend in America, how about an Independence Day movie? We're not the most inspired chaps around here, so, from 18 Glorious Fourths ago, here's Roland Emmerich's Independence Day. The music for this film is by David Arnold, who went on to succeed John Barry as James Bond's house composer, in part because his score here reassured Barbara Broccoli that he could handle a big-budget blockbuster. You can hear David and other members of the 007 family paying tribute to John ...

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Grace of My Heart

Alison Anders' movie recreates the Brill Building pop sound of the early Sixties

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Mister Norm

Ronald Reagan died ten years ago - June 5th 2004. Here's what came before the politics - Reagan in Hollywood...

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The Rain Maker

Steyn celebrates Stanley Donen, the last surviving director of Hollywood's Golden Age

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Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2

Ten years ago this month Quentin Tarantino unveiled the second part of his Kill Bill double-bill. He wasn't making a lot of movies in those days. Kill Bill was his first picture since Jackie Brown six years earlier. I'm not the biggest fan of Tarantino, and I think he's almost incapable of engaging you in narrative drama rooted in real characters, but Kill Bill has moments that have stuck with me over the years...

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Vertigo

The role that ensured Kim Novak's name will last as long as movies do...

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Schindler's List

We're counting down to the Oscars with the 1994 Best Picture winner...

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