The Union Recorder

December 24, 2013

CURTAIN CALL: My Top 10 holiday film classics

Tom Toney
The Union-Recorder

MILLEDGEVILLE — “Toyland, Toyland, little girl and boy land, While you dwell within it, you are ever happy there.”

Well, it’s the night before Christmas and there really isn’t much stirring in ways of upcoming concerts or plays. So what’s a scribe to do when he is faced with a column full of space?

It is the holiday season, which means many different things to different people. One of my favorite aspects of this time of year is watching some of my favorite Xmas-themed movies.  

So what the heck? Everyone else does a Top 10 list sooner or later. For what it’s worth, here is a rundown of my top 10 Xmas movies. See if any of your favorites are on the list.

10. “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” This is the funniest of all the Lampoon Vacation films (at least in my opinion). Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo and Randy Quaid serve up the ultimate tribute to the always hoped for but never quite perfect “family Christmas.”

The supporting cast also adds so much to this film — Mae Questel, E.G. Marshall, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Diane Ladd, even a young Johnny Galecki as son Rusty.

And of course, the quest to have the most decorated house in the western hemisphere now seems to have seriously entered into our culture!

9. “A Christmas Story.” I saw this with my wife, Ellie, when it was first released in 1983. We sat in a large theatre in downtown Champaign, Ill. and laughed until we cried. We didn’t have to worry about disturbing anyone else as the rest of the theatre was empty!

This charming movie was pretty much a flop when it was released. It has since become almost overly iconic with multiple showings every Christmas. But there’s no resisting the fun of watching father Darren McGavin conduct fights with the furnace in the basement and the neighbors’ dogs while beaming with pride over his “major award” of a lamp shaped like a lady’s leg.

And if your childhood dates from the 1930s through the 1960s, the odds are YOU also wanted a Red Ryder BB rifle.

8. “The Bishop’s Wife.” Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven in a touching holiday classic that is both funny and insightful.  Niven plays a bishop who looks for divine guidance while building his cathedral. Cary Grant arrives as Dudley the angel who provides guidance of a different kind.

Interestingly, David Niven was originally slated to play the choice part of Dudley. But when the studio signed Cary Grant, he graciously stepped down, realizing that Grant’s name as the star would generate more box office revenue.

The two became close friends and remained that way for the rest of their lives.

7. “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” From the sublime to the absolute hilarious. Monty Wooley plays critic Sheridan Whiteside who slips on the front steps of the home of a stuffy Ohio businessman just before the holidays. He and his entourage proceed to completely take over the house as well as the lives of the Stanley family.

Though Wooley was not that well-known in movies, he had played the part of Whiteside on Broadway and knew it to perfection. He was joined by such Hollywood stars as Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Jimmy Stewart and the magnificent Jimmy Durante as Banjo.

I’ll admit, I am prejudiced toward this film. Back in 2006, I had the pleasure of playing Sheridan Whiteside in the Milledgeville Players’ production of “Man Who Came to Dinner.” Talk about a lot of lines to learn!

6. “Meet Me in St. Louis.” One of two films on this list that is not strictly an Xmas film, but features a large sequence centered on the holidays. This is one of the all time great MGM musicals, arguably Judy Garland’s greatest film.

The film is a perfect slice of Americana at the turn of the 20th century, centering on Judy’s family in St. Louis, the year leading up the World’s Fair that took place there in 1904.

Judy introduces the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” during one of the saddest parts of the film as her younger sister, wonderfully played by Margaret O’Brien, anticipates (and dreads) an upcoming move to New York planned by the girls’ father.  

Just a wonderful film - great music and great direction from Vincente Minelli.

5. “Babes in Toyland.” We are definitely talking here about the 1934 version of the film starring Laurel and Hardy, NOT the sugar sweet version filmed in the early 1960s by Walt Disney.

The Laurel and Hardy version of “Babes in Toyland” is one of the boys’ finest films. It features five songs from the original operetta by Victor Hugo and is both funny and terrifying.

The scenes in Mother Goose Land with all the storybook characters are charming and inspired. And the scenes with Barnaby unleashing the bogeymen from their caverns to destroy Toyland are scary as hell!   

Rarely shown today, this film is well worth seeking out.

4. “Miracle on 34th Street.” Once again, only accept the original with Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, Maureen O’Hara as Doris Walker, the jaded and cynical Macy’s executive, and the beautiful Natalie Wood as her daughter who has been taught by her mother “not to believe” though you feel right from the start, she desperately wants to.

3. “Desk Set.” The second film in my list that is not strictly an Xmas film. This was the next to last teaming of the great Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, taking place in 1957.

The plot involves a computer expert (Tracy) who has been hired to computerize a TV network’s research department, headed by Hepburn. The film is a wonderful comedy as these two strong personalities bump heads, develop a friendship, have a complete falling out and in the end, of course, realize they were made for each other.

A major part of the film centers on the holidays and the most wonderful Christmas office party you will ever see (why don’t we have those kind of office parties anymore?). It also features the most fun rendition of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” you will ever hear, with a drunken Hepburn singing and dancing while Tracy adds bongo accompaniment.

With a supporting cast that includes Gig Young and Joan Blondell, this film is more fun that a barrel full of Madison Avenue admen.

2. “Christmas in Connecticut.” Barbara Stanwyck plays a food writer who has lied about being the perfect housewife. She has to try to cover up her deception when her boss (played to perfection by the great Sydney Greenstreet) and a returning war hero (Dennis Morgan) invite themselves to her home for a “traditional” family Xmas.

A truly sparkling comedy from 1945 that shows just how wonderful Barbara Stanwyck was at comedy - she was more often cast in dramatic roles. She turns flipping a pancake into both a suspenseful and hilarious undertaking.  I truly love this little film.

1. “Scrooge” (aka “A Christmas Carol”). There are many versions of this Charles Dickens tale out there. Scrooge has been played by everyone from George C. Scott and Albert Finney to Bill Murray and Mr. Magoo. But only Alastair Sim, from the 1951 British rendition of the film, will ever be Scrooge to me.

This version of the film is about as perfect as a movie can be.  Sim is the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge and he is joined by an incredible cast of some of the best British actors of the period. The cinematography is top notch, and the film manages to capture the essence of what London was like at the time of Dickens like no other version has ever done.

Sim also manages that perfect blend of comedy and pathos that very few actors can do — Charlie Chaplin being the most adept. One minute you will be laughing hysterically as Scrooge tries to stand on his head, much to the chagrin of his terrified housekeeper who is convinced he is going mad. The next minute you will have sentimental tears streaming down your cheeks as Scrooge begs forgiveness from his nephew’s wife, whom he has held in estrangement for so many years because of her being poor.

And there you have my top 10 list of Xmas movies.  Hopefully you’ll have a chance to see one or two during the holidays.

The opening lyrics were, of course, from “Toyland” from “Babes in Toyland.” A tender lullaby celebrating childhood, but also a warning for those who want to grow up too fast.

“Childhood joyland, mystic merry Toyland, Once you pass its borders, you can never return again.”

Catch you on the flip side.