I got a letter from 20-year-old Shawna, who is recovering from a case of COVID-19 that briefly landed her in the hospital. She is at home on the mend now, but remains stuck in bed for days, drinking gallons of her aunt’s chicken broth.
She wanted to know if I could recommend any Christmas movies to help pass the time.
The first thing to say, Shawna, is that I’m no expert. Most of my favorite movies are considered to be deader than ragtime. Secondly, I don’t have enough room to list them all here, but I’ll hit the big ones.
I begin with “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which debuted in 1965, and aired every year throughout many people’s childhoods. I’ve been watching this program since I wore rubber underpants and chewed on furniture.
Coincidentally, the Charlie Brown special almost didn’t air on TV this season after a streaming service bought the rights to the program. This would have been a tragedy.
Thankfully, PBS swooped in at the last minute and secured the rights to air the Charlie Brown special. I’ve never been so grateful to see a show saved from oblivion; the annual Peanuts broadcast was the apex of kid-dom.
Which reminds me, I don’t know how we did it back then, planning our lives around live network TV. It was a wholly different world before streaming services.
Instead of on-demand movies, for example, we had Mama. Mama would consult the newspaper broadcast-schedule with a ferocious eye, weeks in advance, scanning for television shows. Then she would plan our entire liturgical calendar year around “Facts of Life,” “The Love Boat,” and “Magnum P.I.”
Also, today you have the pause button, which has ruined everything. Long ago, back in the Middle Ages, nobody paused anything. People just let their bladders rupture.
We even used to watch the commercials. Like the one where Mister George Whipple, a perpetually frustrated supermarket manager warns TV moms about the hidden dangers associated with squeezing the Charmin.
Don’t forget to watch Irving Berlin’s 1954 classic “White Christmas.” An American standard. It’s staggering how many young people have not seen this movie. I read an article about a channel that almost scrapped the film because it claimed nobody watches it anymore.
This picture is an annual staple. My old man never missed a showing of “White Christmas.” And whenever micro-waisted Judy Haynes started tap dancing, my mother would look up from her knitting and say with disapproval, “It’s a wonder she can even sit down without breaking in two.”
I also love the many incarnations of Scrooge. It’s hard to beat the performance of George C. Scott. The musical version with Albert Finney isn’t bad, either. But if you ask me, 1951’s “Scrooge” is the winner.
I don’t want to forget to mention the holiday stop motion movies. My childhood would have been nothing without the Rankin/Bass animagic productions, which featured Rudolph, the Abominable Snowman, Yukon Cornelius, Kris Kringle, Burl Ives, and Hermey the Elf, whose passion for dentistry went on to inspire dozens.
But it was 1989’s “Prancer” which stole my heart and never gave it back. This is my movie.
Last Christmas I wrote a column about this film, proclaiming it to be, perhaps, my favorite. I was surprised how many felt the same. But I was equally surprised by emails from people who disagreed, saying it was a stupid movie. Well, in the spirit of holiday fairness, who’s to say those who disagree with me are wrong?
Me. That’s who. These people are wrong. “Prancer” is the perfect flick.
Still, the undisputed Christmas champ is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I love this movie for the same reasons everyone does: the story, the small town, Donna Reed, Henry Travers as the bumbling angel.
But I also like the movie because there are similarities between this film and the life of my late father. People used to say my father looked like a redheaded Jimmy Stewart. The older I get the more I see it. Also, my father was deaf in one ear, just like Stewart’s character.
I grew up watching this holiday gem every year on a wooden Zenith console with a funky picture and bent rabbit ears. And to this day, whenever the movie comes to the crying scene, where George Bailey starts weeping, it just rips me apart.
As it happens, Stewart’s famous crying scene was completely unscripted. Apparently, he had just arrived back in the U.S. after serving in World War II. When he was reciting his lines he had an unexpected breakdown on camera, but he somehow stayed in character. If this scene doesn’t touch your heart, check your wrist for a pulse.
I’m running out of room here, but there are more movies worth naming. “Miracle on 34th Street” is one. The black-and-white version, please.
And don’t leave out 1989’s “Christmas Vacation.” Cousin Eddie is the reason I get out of bed.
“We’re No Angels,” (1955) Bogart shows the world how to be cool.
“While You Were Sleeping” (1995) is one my wife and I watch each year. It’s sweet. I often cry and my wife makes her annual Yuletide remark about how I’m hormonal.
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” Not the newly computerized aberration. I mean the 1966 animated special with Boris Karloff.
You can keep your “Home Alone” movies, my mother would have swatted that kid’s hindparts halfway to Sunday school.
“Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) is the definition of joy.
“Ernest Saves Christmas” (1988) deserves an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Pulitzer.
And so do you, Shawna, for making it through this crummy year. Get well soon.