Christmas Films

December 16, 2012

A Dictionary of Film Studies

Over the past century and more, cinema has become a significant part of the celebration of Christmas. The festive period is the key season for release of blockbusters such as the Harry Potter franchise and fantasy films like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, US/New Zealand). Christmas television schedules are organized around well-known films, home viewing is a time-honoured Christmas holiday activity, and Christmas in some form has been a topic, theme, or audiovisual component of countless films. By one estimate, Christmas currently figures in more than a quarter of Hollywood’s top-grossing pictures.

Films with a Christmas theme can be dated to cinema’s earliest years. In 1901 the British filmmaker R.W. Paul created the first ever adaptation of Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, a trick film called Scrooge; or, Marley’s Ghost. Other adaptations quickly followed: in the US the Essanay Manufacturing Company produced a one-reeler in 1908 and the Edison Company made film versions in 1910 and 1914. The innumerable subsequent film versions include MGM’s lavish A Christmas Carol (Edward L. Marin, US, 1938); the 1951 Scrooge (Brian Desmond Hurst, UK), starring Alastair Sim; a musical of the same title (Ronald Neame, UK, 1970); Scrooged (Richard Donner, US, 1988), a Saturday Night Live-influenced parody featuring Bill Murray; and The Muppet Christmas Carol (Brian Henson, US, 1992), a spinoff of the popular television puppet show. All versions and variants of Dickens’s story embody an archetypal Christmas plot: a central character undergoes a period of self-reflection from which a renewed moral perspective and/or sense of community emerges against a backdrop of selfishness and greed. Faith is often a significant factor here, with supernatural or divine intervention ensuring that moral probity and commitment to family and community are suitably rewarded. While this type of plot perhaps hints at the religious significance of the festival, it is actually relatively rare for films to address the Christian story of Christmas directly.

Many of the best-loved and most influential Christmas films are products of  Hollywood’s studio system. The Bing Crosby vehicles Holiday Inn (Mark Sandrich, US, 1942) and its remake White Christmas (Michael Curtiz, US, 1954) both feature Crosby’s famous song ‘White Christmas’. These films also incorporate elements of mise-en-scene that have become associated with Christmas films: open fires, home and family, fairy lights, sleigh rides, and so on. Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (US, 1946), a perennial of Christmas television and cinema programming, revamps the Christmas Carol theme of family unity and community renewal in an American small-town setting, while the family-at-Christmas topos assumes an ominous edge in Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, US, 1944), a musical with overtones of melodrama. Reluctant - but eventually redemptive - reunions of dysfunctional families figure in such Christmas melodramas as Un conte de Noël/A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2008).  Since Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton, US, 1947), in which a young girl who does not believe in Santa Claus comes face to face with him in Macy’s department store in New York, Santa has become increasingly visible as a film character, assuming many guises and meanings. Santa Claus: The Movie (Jeannot Szwarc, UK, 1985) and Joulutarina/A Christmas Story (Juha Wuolijoki, Finland, 2007) present culturally distinctive takes on the Father Christmas legend, while in Santa Claus (René Cardona, Mexico, 1959), Santa is forced to duel with demons.

Animation is a perennially popular format for Christmas films: in the 1950s, for example, Moscow Cartoon Film Studio produced Night Before Christmas, based on a story by Gogol. Other Christmas-themed animations include How The Grinch Stole Christmas (Chuck Jones, US, 1966), The Snowman (Dianne Jackson, UK, 1982), The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selick, US, 1993), and Aardman Films’ Arthur Christmas (Sarah Smith, US/UK, 2012). But Christmas also figures in types of film that might not be immediately associated with the festive season. In 1941, for example, Harry Watt of the GPO Film Unit directed the documentary Christmas Under Fire, which showed Christmas being celebrated in London during the Blitz: the film was designed to encourage the US to enter World War II on the side of the Allies. By contrast, a recent documentary, A la rencontre du Père Noël (Gary Evans and Marc Girard, Canada, 2007) looks at the changing meanings of the Santa Claus archetype.

Christmas is a recurrent theme in war films, including Jean Renoir’s antiwar classic La grande illusion/The Grand Illusion (France, 1937) and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, UK/Japan/New Zealand, 1982), as well as Joyeux Noël/Merry Christmas (Christian Carrion, France/Germany/UK/Belgium/Romania, 2005), which depicts the World War I ‘Christmas Truce’ when soldiers in the trenches declared an unofficial ceasefire to celebrate the holiday. Perhaps as a reaction to saccharine and sentimental filmic portrayals of Christmas, a number of horror films set out bloody and frightening scenarios: examples include Silent Night, Bloody Night (Theodore Gershuny, US, 1972), Black Christmas (Bob Clark, Canada, 1974), and Don’t Open Till Christmas (Edmund Purdom, UK, 1984); while Santa is a psychopathic killer in You Better Watch Out (Lewis Jackson, US, 1980), To All a Good Night (David Hess, US, 1980), and Silent Night, Deadly Night (Charles E. Sellier Jr, US, 1984) and an evil spirit in Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander, Finland/Norway/France/Sweden, 2010).

Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell authors of A Dictionary of Film Studies