MostlyChristmas: favourite Christmas movies, part 1

Mostly Film has come over a touch festive this week, and will be bringing you a Christmas-themed post every day. Today and tomorrow, some of our  contributors recommend their favourite movies for the festive season. Today, adopting the Santa Claus classification, the nice ones. Tomorrow, the naughty. Sort of. Don’t hold me to that.

It’s a Wonderful Life

By Ron Swanson

It’s fair to say that choosing It’s a Wonderful Life as a great Christmas movie isn’t a hugely original, or controversial stance. Sometimes it’s important to try and raise people’s awareness of a forgotten or neglected piece of art that could provide some hitherto unimagined joy. Equally, though, the pleasure in re-experiencing a masterpiece should not be discounted.

It’s a Wonderful Life is, for me, a perfect cinematic experience. It lionises kindness, solidarity, justice and hope, while also accepting that even the best of us can plumb the depths of frustrated ambitions, depression and self-pity.

It hangs around a marvellous performance from Jimmy Stewart, who never did more to disabuse audiences of the notion that he was a one-trick pony than he does here. George Bailey is a fully rounded human being: charming, decent, but with a quick temper and the potential for cruelty.

We see Bailey sacrificing his dreams of travelling the world to protect the future of his friends and neighbours by taking over his father’s business – a building and loan company, which is the only barrier to the predatory, pitiless Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) from controlling the town of Bedford Falls.

When people talk about It’s a Wonderful Life, they often use words like syrupy and schmaltzy, but there is real darkness to Frank Capra’s movie. George is on the brink of suicide, facing ruin and resenting all of the sacrifices he’s made, he laments his poor luck and vents his anger – claiming the world would have been better if he’d never been born.

As he realises the worth of his life (thanks to an unlikely angel), and goes on a voyage of self-discovery, one honest plea from his wife (the lovely Donna Reed) exercises all of the town to rush to his aid, providing him with the money he needs to save himself (and, therefore, themselves) from Potter’s clutches.

Although the film ends on Christmas Eve, the film manages to evoke festive feelings despite not being ‘about’ Christmas. Instead, it’s a film about loving your family, feeling grateful for what you have, and letting go of what you don’t. That’s what Christmas should be about, and for the 130 minute running time, that’s how it feels. I’m not sure you could ask for more than that.

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg

By Josephine Grahl

Sometimes you don’t want a happy ending and a heartwarming resolution: sometimes what you want is the poignant side of life, the times when things just don’t work out as you want them to. On Boxing Day, when all you want to do is lie on the sofa and luxuriate in hungover melancholy, you couldn’t do better than Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Jacques Demy’s hommage to the Technicolour musicals of the forties and fifties. It’s an unusual but incredibly charming film – a musical in which all the dialogue is sung, making it more like an operetta than a musical.

Madame Emery owns a little umbrella shop in Cherbourg, and her daughter Geneviève (a radiant Catherine Deneuve) is in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a young car mechanic who lives with his invalid aunt Elise. When he’s drafted into the army, he persuades Geneviève to sleep with him before he leaves for active service in Algeria. She becomes pregnant, and when Guy’s letters stop arriving, her mother persuades her to marry the diamond merchant Roland Cassard rather than face the disgrace and difficulty of raising an illegitimate child. When Guy returns to Cherbourg he finds that the umbrella shop has closed and Geneviève has departed without trace. Injured, unemployed and heartbroken, Guy goes into a decline from which his aunt’s carer Madeleine (Ellen Farmer) tries to rouse him.

What makes Les Parapluies de Cherbourg so heartwrenching is that there are no villains and no intentional betrayals; everybody in the film acts in good faith. Geneviève’s mother doesn’t press her to marry the diamond merchant out of greed, or snobbery, but because she sees no better option for her daughter, and Geneviève’s agreement is born out of grief at Guy’s apparent abandonment of her. Roland, similarly, has no underhand motives; he’s been hurt before and is honest with Geneviève about what he is offering her and what he accepts in return. Madeleine’s yearning love for Guy is painful to watch, as she willingly accepts that he cannot love her as he loved Geneviève and accedes to the compromise rather than lose him altogether.

The film is beautiful, sets and costumes in shimmering sweet-wrapper colours, and the direction has a liveliness and rhythm which complements Michel Legrand’s amazing score. The sung-through form takes a little while to get used to – for the first twenty minutes of the film you are constantly expecting a Big Number which never materialises – but the ‘film in song’, as Jacques Demy described it, has a sparkling vitality which sweetens the sadness of the ending.

In the last scenes of the film the action jumps forward a few years: it’s Christmas Eve, the snow is falling on Cherbourg, and Guy – now owner of his own petrol station – is closing up for the holiday. As he waits for Madeleine – now his wife – and his son to return from their Christmas shopping, Geneviève, driving a shiny Mercedes, pulls into the forecourt. It’s a moment when both have to recognise the mistakes they have made and the compromises they have entered into; but it’s also a moment in which nothing can be resolved: their paths have separated, and nothing now can be altered or undone.

Meet Me in St Louis

By Sarah Slade

It is 1903. Esther Smith (Judy Garland) is the pretty daughter of a prosperous lawyer in the mid-Western city of St Louis. She falls in love with the potato-faced boy next door (Tom Drake), and sings about it. Her father (Leon Ames) announces that his law firm is sending him to head up the New York office, so the family will move in early 1904. The family is sad. Shortly before Christmas, the father announces that they’re not moving after all. Esther sings a bitter-sweet Christmas song. Everybody is happy and instead of moving to New York in the New Year, they visit the World’s Fair in St Louis.

That’s it.

No explosions. No chases. Nobody gets arrested. Nobody rides into town and demands that Judy leave at midday. The scariest, most violent scenes involve Esther’s anarchic youngest sister, Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) taking part in a Trick or Treat rampage with the local children that would land a present-day London kid with a four-month jail sentence. Tootie gets away with a cut lip and a stern talking to from her mother (Mary Astor).

So, given my predilection for car chases, what makes Meet Me in St Louis so magical? Well, there’s Judy Garland. The entire film is a love letter to Judy: her voice, her face, her strange dyed auburn hair, her deft comic talent, and her ability to sing and dance while sporting several ration books’-worth of frills and furbelows. Shot in Technicolor, the film glitters and shimmers in mouth-watering reds and golds and greens, reminding American troops stationed in the Pacific rim and Europe not of home, exactly, but of a mythical middle America where everybody knows their place, and a family argument can be resolved by a slice of cake and a sentimental song. Conflict, angst, and jazz? That’s all in New York, the teeming metropolitan threat that looms blackly over the second half of the movie. And that’s where you know Tootie and middle sister Agnes will head in 1920, flapper fringes swinging over their immodestly exposed knees and freedom in their eyes. Until then, they’re happy enough to sing about going to the fair, and marvelling at the miracle of electricity.

And the frocks… oh, the frocks.

The Shop Around the Corner

By Concetta Sidoti

Romance, gags, a bustling shop in a pretty middle European city, adultery and a suicide attempt – what says Christmas more than The Shop Around the Corner, Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 comedy? It has all that and Jimmy Stewart too. His romance with Margaret Sullavan is charming yet spiky – sample line: “I really wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, Mr Kralik, because I know exactly what I’d find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter… which doesn’t work”.

Fixing what’s broken is a theme here, and not just for our couple, bickering colleagues in a Budapest shop who don’t know that they are the other’s adored anonymous pen pal. Stewart’s Alfred seems brusque and unimaginative; Sullavan’s Klara appears dismissive and is prone to flights of sentiment. But those aren’t their true selves. When Alfred finds out that Klara is his secret friend, he has to work out how – and whether he wants at all – to tell her, and start a real relationship. Meanwhile, the shop’s owner, Mr Matuschek, is about to get some bad news and take drastic action. These people don’t just sell leather goods together, though, they’re a family – and they come together to provide the advice and support that solves both problems. And to get the young kid who’s new to the big city a seasonal feast too.

If the set-up sounds familiar, put the horrendous Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan remake out of your mind – its name is not mentioned in my house – and treat yourself to one of the finest Christmas movies, romantic comedies – hell, just films – ever made in Hollywood.

While You Were Sleeping

By The Tramp

Christmas for some is a religious holiday, time to rejoice the birth of Christ. For others it’s about consumerism and all that’s rotten with the world. And then there are people like me for whom Christmas is all about family. While You Were Sleeping might be marketed as a romcom but really it’s all about family and it’s a fantastic Christmas film. Here’s why…

Sandra Bullock is Lucy, a ticket collector on the Chicago Transit Authority. The only one of her colleagues with no family commitments, she’s working over Christmas when she saves the life of commuter Peter (Peter Gallagher), who falls on the tracks and is taken to hospital in a coma. A mistake at the hospital means that Peter’s family are told that Lucy is his fiancée. Rapidly welcomed into Peter’s family, she starts to fall for his brother Jack (Bill Pullman), but cannot bring herself to shatter the family’s illusion that she is still engaged to Peter.

The romance and comedy of errors is marvellous stuff, but it’s the themes of loneliness, the need for family – whether your own or the one you make or find – that really drives this film. A film about a woman so lonely she will spend her Christmas in a hospital talking to a man she doesn’t know who’s in a coma. It’s also a film that believes that life is what happens between the dreams and the planning, that enjoys undermining the romantic fantasy by highlighting it as just that – a fantasy- and that sees beauty and honour in a working class world (although it’s a Hollywood movie so the places they live are all fabulous). What could be more heart-warming and Christmassy than that?

So the great bits. There’s some fantastic repartee, particularly between Lucy and Joe Junior and from Glynis Johns (better known as the mum from Mary Poppins). Some brilliant slapstick, with a running joke of people pratfalling on ice. Sandra Bullock is beautiful, Pullman is marvellously manly, Gallagher has great fun undermining the romantic ideal and of course there’s the fantastic Peter Boyle as the father of Jack and Peter.

As for my favourite scene… Well, there’s two. Jack’s explanation of ‘leaning’, but perhaps best of all the family Christmas where gifts are given and a wistful Lucy looks on, joins in and finally feels a part of something.

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