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 BÃ©art in La BÃ»che (2000), fretting over a perfect bÃ»che de NoÃ«l. Around her, all is gloom: infidelity, an unwanted pregnancy, death, disease, despair. But, through the wreckage, Mlle BÃ©art 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 BÃ©art's example and made them a lovely seasonal treat of a George W BÃ»che de NoÃ«l. Or you could go with a Jeb BÃ»che de NoÃ«l: it costs a hundred million dollars, and only 2.4 per cent of your guests like it. (More beating about the bÃ»che at SteynOnline later this holiday season.)
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", "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.
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
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 James Franco and Seth Rogen's The Interview, scuttled by Kim Jong-Un a couple of Yules back.
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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 our video presentation of A Child's Christmas in Wales with the great SiÃ¢n Phillips. And on Christmas Eve we will have an especially merry live-performance edition of our Song of the Week.
What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, it's an Audio Book of the Month Club - or, if you prefer, a radio-serial club. It's also a discussion group of lively people around the world on the great questions of our time. It's a video poetry and live music club. We don't (yet) have a clubhouse, but we do have a newsletter and other benefits. And, if you've got some kith or kin who might like the sound of all that and more, for this holiday season only we have a special Christmas Gift Membership that includes a welcome gift of a handsome Steyn hardback or a CD set personally autographed by Mark. The book and albums won't arrive till after Boxing Day now, but all the other delights of membership can be electronically delivered to your loved one on Christmas morn. More details here.