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Friday, December 21, 2012

My Favorite Christmas Movie

The discussion of favorite Christmas X,Y, or Z comes up every year, and because there haven't really been a lot of great examples of the genre in recent decades, and because too many people tend to casually dismiss works of art from time periods before their own cultural awareness dawned, lately the annual round of blog posts celebrating Christmas movies have taken on a distressing similarity. Many film or pop-culture bloggers, typically male, have taken to christening "Die Hard" the 1988 Bruce Willis cop thriller, as the best Christmas movie of all time. I see this all the time, and my default reaction at this point is just scream "No! No! NO!" and pound my fists on the table. Clearly, I'm an emotionally mature adult.

I should hope I don't have to point out the faulty reasoning inherent in naming Die Hard the greatest Christmas movie, but I will because this is exactly the kind of things blogs were made for. First, Die Hard isn't the greatest anything, not even the best Die Hard. Die Hard with a Vengeance is basically the same movie with a lot more trivia, logic puzzles and Samuel L. Jackson (who plays a character named Zeus solely for the benefit of one single "Hey, Zeus!" joke.)

Secondly, Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. The fact that the events of the film take place at Christmas time are not particularly necessary to the story the movie is trying to tell. It's a coincidence, or more accurately a choice made out of convenience. Die Hard is not about Christmas is any meaningful way.

As for my own favorite Christmas movie, it was for many years the Jimmy Stewart classic It's a Wonderful Life, which is still the only movie guaranteed to make me cry at every viewing. (Multiple scenes can set off the waterworks, but I always lose it when Harry Bailey toasts, "To my big brother George, the richest man in town!")

However, a few years ago I watched the black and white version of Miracle on 47th Street, which NBC used to always air after the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, for the first time since I was a kid. Really paying attention to the movie reveals to be a remarkably well-constructed examination of the holiday itself, our collective need to imbue the end of the year celebration with a sense of magic and goodness, at the possible expense of our collective sanity. It is the quintessential Christmas movie.

When a sweet old grandfatherly man calling himself Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) fills in for a drunken Santa at the Macy's parade, he becomes an instant hit and is hired to play the role for the season at the department store by put-upon single mother Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara). Doris has raised her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) to be a practical little girl and not believe in fairy tales or other such nonsense. The Walker's neighbor Fred is an idealistic young lawyer who doesn't see the harm in believing in things.

Everything goes great at first, as Kringle's big-hearted disposition fills even capatalistic Mr. Macy with the spirit of giving. But then an interfering psychologist provokes Kringle into an outburst, leading to his commitment and trial. Represented at the trial by Fred, Kringle's fate hinges on the young lawyer's ability to prove to the court of law that his client is the real Santa Claus.

The courtroom scenes are really thrilling, but when I was younger I didn't see what was really going on. It's easy to watch and think of Miracle on 34th Street as just another one of those movies with a feel-good ending where everyone decides to believe again, a la Tim Allen's Santa Clause movies.

But really, Fred's brilliance is less legal than psychological and political. He slowly destroys the prosecution's case by relying on the shared cultural construct of the Santa Claus myth. He gets the prosecutor to admit that there really is a Santa Claus by confronting him with his own son's belief in the man. He gets a respected man like Mr. Macy to admit to his belief in Kris Kringle because Macy is worried about loss of sales. The judge in the case, acting upon the advice of his political bosses, is unwilling to rule against Santa Claus lest a lot of angry parents toss him out of office. The finishing touch of the Post Office delivering Santa's mail is really just a convenient out for the judge. The real cause for Kringle's win is our collective need for Christmas to have a meaning beyond presents.

The movie plays it a little coy too, for the children. Susan gets the house she wanted for Christmas, with Kringle's cane in the corner indicating that he had something to do with them finding it. But the movie makes it pretty clear this isn't actually a gift. Fred's closing line, "Maybe I didn't do such a great thing, after all." could be seen as him admitting it wasn't too hard to prove Kris Kringle was really Santa, but really, he's also quite likely realized that Kringle isn't quite as all there as he appears.

Miracle on 34th Street is such a winning, affirmative movie, that it's easy to miss how perceptive it is about the reasons for the season. It's so easy to miss, that the people who remade the movie in the '90s managed to excise all the wit and intelligence out of the screenplay, somehow managing to turn the best Christmas movie of all time into just another holiday film. But the original is so good it can not be tarnished.

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