Home (Theater) for the Holidays
by Tim Froberg
We all have them during the holiday season, and most involve family and friends.
December may provide lovely weather for a sleigh ride together, but who among us takes sleigh rides? If you’re like me, you stick to simple, basic traditions like plunking down on the couch, cranking up the thermostat and watching your favorite Christmas movies.
Allow me to share my holiday viewing list. My Christmas faves range from traditional classics – the name Clarence Odbody may ring a bell here – to the downright goofy, “Clark, this is our pride and joy, Snot.”
So, mix yourself a flaming rum punch, park the RV in the driveway and hit play on the following holiday shows. I’ve included a few animated classic Christmas TV specials because it would be wrong to go through the holiday season without watching Linus explain the true meaning of Christmas or seeing a certain green grump gain the strength of 10 grinches, plus two.
Honorable mention on my list goes to some worthy contemporary film efforts like “Elf,” “The Polar Express” and the live-action film version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” And no, “Die Hard” doesn’t make the cut just because it takes place during the holiday season. We can’t have Santa getting blown out of the sky.
It’s A Wonderful Life
To me, Christmas Eve isn’t Christmas Eve without putting aside a few hours to watch earnest, selfless George Bailey battle ornery Old Man Potter to keep the riffraff out of Bedford Falls in this beloved black-and-white classic. The plot of an incredibly nice small-town banker with fleeting dreams of a grander life contemplating suicide is dark, but Frank Capra’s 1946 gem proves to be the ultimate feel-good Christmas movie as a wingless angel convinces George that he’s had a greater impact on his community, family, and friends than he realized.
Amazingly, things weren’t so wonderful initially for this post-World War II film. It was a box-office dud, bankrupted its studio (Liberty Films), and whiffed on the Academy Award circuit. It didn’t become popular until copyright protection expired in 1974, allowing television stations to air the movie for free and making it a Christmas Eve staple.
Favorite Scene: So many to choose from, but I have to go with the touching finale when George’s legion of friends shrugs off a snowstorm to shower him with love and cash, and keep him out of jail. I’ve seen the scene a million times, but it still moves me when Burt the Cop fires up the accordion and the Bedford Falls gang breaks into a chorus of Auld Lang Syne.
A close runner-up is the awesome bar scene when Clarence tries to decide on his first drink in centuries before he and George are booted out by grumpy bartender Nick after Clarence reveals his true age to be 293 next May.
Favorite Line: Nick scolding Clarence over his drink choice and peculiarities by bellowing: “We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast and don’t need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere.”
Fun Fact: Among the actors originally considered to play Potter – one of the greatest movie villains of all-time – was Thomas Mitchell, who was ultimately cast as bumbling Uncle Billy. The role went to Lionel Barrymore, who used a wheelchair in real life at the time due to a hip injury and chronic arthritis. Ironically, the veteran actor had played lovable characters for a good portion of his career and reveled in the role of the contemptible Potter.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
As much as I enjoyed the original “Vacation,” 1989’s “Christmas Vacation” is my slam-dunk choice as the funniest of the four films involving the Griswold clan and is a December staple in my house.
Writer/director/producer John Hughes was huge in the 1980s and a genius with holiday comedies. “Christmas Vacation” followed the outstanding “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987) and preceded box-office giant “Home Alone” (1990).
The always funny Chevy Chase is at the top of his game as overzealous Clark, whose dreams of a wonderful old-fashioned family Christmas are crushed by his boss’s cold-hearted plans to eliminate Christmas bonuses. It doesn’t help that his house is invaded by a small army of early-arriving and obnoxious relatives led by freeloading hillbilly Cousin Edie, who thinks nothing of emptying his RV’s toilet tank onto the Griswold’s front lawn – clad only in his bathrobe and ear-flapped hat – while pounding down a breakfast brew.
Favorite Scene: A lot of funny stuff, here. High on my list is the scene when an emotional Clark finally gets his elaborate exterior light display to work – only to have the moment ruined when he realizes he’s standing next to Cousin Eddie, who has arrived unexpectedly with his entire family, including his beloved rottweiler, Snot, for an extended stay. Eddie’s first words are unforgettable: “House sure looks swell, Clark.”
Still, I’m going to go with Clark’s foul-mouthed verbal tirade after learning he’s been denied his Christmas bonus and is the recipient of a Jelly of the Month Christmas present. Prior to Clark’s rant, his relatives had slowly been driving him crazy, from burning down his Christmas tree courtesy of Uncle Louis to having the family’s dining room destroyed by Snot while in pursuit of a squirrel.
Little did Clark know at the time that dimwitted but good-hearted Cousin Eddie would save the day by kidnapping Frank Shirley, Clark’s boss, and presenting him to Clark wrapped in a bow and secured by a dog leash near the film’s conclusion.
Favorite Line: It comes when the family is dining on its not-so-tasty Christmas Eve dinner and Clark tells the children that a television news crew earlier reported that Santa’s sleigh was spotted in the sky. To which a befuddled Cousin Eddie responds, “You serious, Clark?”
Fun Fact: There were four different Rustys for each film, but the actor who played Rusty in “Christmas Vacation” probably resonates more with today’s audience. He’s Johnny Galecki, who went on to play uber-geek Leonard for 12 seasons on “The Big Bang Theory.”
A Christmas Story
I triple-dog dare you to find a funnier movie about childhood Christmas memories than this 1983 classic about 9-year-old Ralphie and his intense desire for a Red Ryder BB gun. Along the way, Ralphie battles an overprotective mother; bullies like Scutt Farkus, who Ralphie swears has yellow eyes; and an unsympathetic Santa who uses his foot to push Ralphie down a slide at the mall after warning the boy he’ll shoot his eye out with his Christmas wish request.
Favorite Scene: Love it when Ralphie’s classmate and buddy, Flick, accepts the triple-dog-dare and gets his tongue stuck to a metal flagpole while his buddies bail. Love it even more when a humiliated Ralphie stumbles down the stairs dressed in Aunt Clara’s Christmas present, a pink bunny suit, leading his father to remark, “He looks like a deranged Easter Bunny – a pink nightmare.” But I have to go with the Darrin McGavin-dominated scene when the cantankerous but loving father wins a contest and is shipped what he boasts is a major award. It’s a garish leg lamp that pop thinks is the coolest thing ever, but is hated by his sensible wife.
“Frah-gee-lee,” says the old man, mispronouncing the word “fragile” on the crate containing the leg lamp. “Must be Italian.”
Favorite Line: Little brother Randy, a finicky eater, grumbling about his evening meal: “Meatloaf. Smeatloaf. Double Beatloaf. I hate Meatloaf.”
Fun Fact: Three models of the leg lamp were used during filming and none survived the project.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Filmed in 1965, this beloved Christmas treasure has aged extremely well. Sure, the animation is outdated, but the dialogue is smart and sassy even by today’s standards. Lucy’s reply of “real estate” when asked what she really wants for Christmas is brilliant, along with her rant to Schroeder of “Beethoven’s not so great – he’s never been on bubblegum cards.”
Favorite Scene: When Linus takes center stage in the auditorium and requests the spotlight with a “lights, please” before explaining to Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about.
Favorite Line: Linus on assessing Charlie Brown’s Christmas misery: “You’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Of all the Charlie Browns in the word, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”
Fun Fact: The show may have destroyed the aluminum tree market. Prior to Charlie Brown’s search for the perfect tree, Lucy instructs him to “find the biggest aluminum tree” you can find. Aluminum trees were a part of the Christmas tree landscape in the 1960s, but when Charlie selects a sad-looking but real tree that just needs a little love, it didn’t help aluminum tree sales. They plunged to a point where aluminum trees disappeared from the market by the 1970s. However, they have made a comeback and can still be purchased online today.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
I enjoyed Jim Carrey’s portrayal of the great green grump in the 2000 film version, but the animated 1966 cartoon classic narrated by former horror film star Boris Karloff is the gold standard in Grinch offerings.
The show was based on a popular children’s book by author Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel and tells the now-familiar story of a mean-hearted hermit who attempts to steal Christmas from the good folks of nearby Whoville. It was written and presented in rhymed verse and offers some of the greatest alliteration you will find. How can you top “It was little Cindy Lou Who, who was no more than two,” or “roast beast is a feast I can’t stand in the least?”
Favorite Scene: All the scenes involving Max, the Grinch’s not-so-powerful pooch who is tasked with pulling a sleigh bulging with thousands of pounds of presents, are good ones. But watching the Grinch slither around the Christmas tree like a serpent before swiping all the Whos presents gets the nod here.
Favorite Line: The Grinch on the arrival of a gift-less Christmas: “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes, or bags.”
Fun Fact: The singer of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” was Thurl Ravenscroft, who also supplied the voice of Tony the Tiger in those famous Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes commercials. Ravenscroft’s name was inadvertently omitted from the cartoon’s credits, leading to the assumption that Karloff sang the song.