Greetings friends!! You thought I forgot, didn’t you?? No…no I didn’t. After making rather merry for a couple of days I just got lazy. While folks in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, & Great Britain were celebrating Boxing Day, conceived in the early 19th century as a day for servants to receive a gift or “Christmas Box” from the boss and get a day off to be home with their families the day after Christmas, and some Christians might have been observing St. Stephen’s Day, honoring, according to the Biblical book of Acts, a church deacon appointed by Jesus’ apostles to distribute food to the poor who became the first Christian martyr when he was stoned to death after a passionate speech to the Sanhedrin in defense of Jesus Christ, I was…well…watching a lot of football. Actually I am quite thankful for those meaningless collegiate bowl games, as they make the sudden scarcity of beloved Christmas movies on TV a little more tolerable. At any rate, New Year’s Eve has arrived, and if you’re really old school the Twelve Days of Christmas aren’t over until the end of the upcoming week, so now seems like a perfectly valid time for the conclusion of Merry Movie Mayhem.
I know that many people have their best ideas occur to them in their sleep, but my dreams are usually stupid & utterly pointless. However, earlier this week a fantastic notion formed in my snoozing brain. This wasn’t how I originally envisioned wrapping up the project, but after some thoughtful ponderation I believe it is an appropriate course of action.
We started the competition with 64 participants and have whittled the field down to eight. In the early rounds the process was rather easy and the decisions fairly obvious, but as things progressed it became necessary to pick nits and find faults in movies & Christmas specials that I truly do enjoy watching. I was willing to fall on that particular sword…after all this was my idea. But when we made it to the final eight (a group that was probably destined to get this far from the very beginning) it just didn’t feel right to eliminate any of them or choose one over another. They all add something different & wonderful to the holiday mix, and it just depends on what kind of mood one is in when deciding what to watch on any random November or December evening. When it comes to these Elite Eight there are no bad options or wrong decisions. To that end what I have decided to do is…in the grand tradition of The Sammy Awards…grant assorted accolades in various categories, with all of the nominees & winners coming from the final eight entrants in Merry Movie Mayhem…Miracle on 34th Street, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, It’s A Wonderful Life, Planes, Trains, & Automobiles, A Christmas Story, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. There are 15 awards, each with three nominees. I hope you’ve enjoyed Merry Movie Mayhem, and I sincerely wish The Manoverse Season’s Greetings, Merry Christmas, & best wishes for a wonderful New Year.
Jean Shepherd (A Christmas Story)
Shepherd is the writer, humorist, & radio personality on whose stories A Christmas Story is based. He is also the “adult Ralphie” who we hear throughout the film, and he even makes a cameo as a mall shopper who informs Ralphie where the line for Santa begins.
Boris Karloff (The Grinch)
Karloff is best known as the actor who portrayed Frankenstein in classic films in the 1930’s. His ominous voice lends a sense of foreboding to The Grinch.
Sam the Snowman (Rudolph)
Sam the Snowman is voiced by actor/singer Burl Ives as a framing device in telling the events of Rudolph’s birth, rejection by everyone at The North Pole, flight to The Island of Misfit Toys with pals Hermie the Elf & Yukon Cornelius, & how his “disability” eventually saved Christmas.
The Winner: Jean Shepherd. I never had the chance to listen to Shep (as his friends & fans called him) on the radio when I was a kid, but I envy those who received the opportunity. What a gift, and what immense talent he had!! I have read his books, and one can’t help but hear his voice in your head when reading them after seeing A Christmas Story. Narration is a tricky method that isn’t & shouldn’t be commonplace in movies, but it is an essential element of A Christmas Story.
Snots (Christmas Vacation)
Snots is the rottweiler that Cousin Eddie, his wife Catherine, & their youngsters bring along when they pay a surprise visit to the Griswolds. His name stems from an apparent nasal problem, he enjoys drinking Pennzoil & water meant for the Christmas tree, likes to yack on bones & rifle thru trash, and famously destroys the Griswold home on Christmas Eve while chasing a squirrel. He is last seen jumping on snooty next door neighbor Margo, who decided to knock on the door at the exact wrong time.
Snoopy (Charlie Brown)
Everybody knows Snoopy, right?? He disappoints an already downtrodden Charlie Brown by getting caught up in the commercialization of Christmas and apparently entering his doghouse in a decorating competition.
Max (The Grinch)
Max is The Grinch’s dog who has no choice but to go along with his master’s harebrained scheme to steal Christmas from The Whos. The Grinch even puts antlers on the poor little guy in an effort to make him look like a reindeer, and he is tied to the front of the sleigh as it heads down & then back up a very steep Mount Crumpet.
The Winner: Snoopy. How can anyone go against Snoopy?? He doesn’t have as much to do in A Charlie Brown Christmas as he does in other Peanuts specials (no appearances by The WWI flying ace doing battle against The Red Baron), but he does do some pretty kickass figure skating.
Best Santa Claus
Higbee’s Santa (A Christmas Story)
This is the Santa that gives mall Santas a bad name. He’s impatient, not particularly good with children, & actually kicks Ralphie down the slide after Ralphie tells him that he wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Oh, he’s also one of several people who warns Ralphie that “You’ll shoot your eye out!!”.
Santa Claus (Rudolph)
As one of only two human adults in The North Pole and the undisputed leader of the community one would expect Santa Claus to be kind, empathetic, charitable, & helpful. Not this guy. Not only is he willing to “cancel Christmas” (as if snow in December in The North Pole is a new concept), but he is just as narrow-minded about Rudolph’s deformity as the reindeer who laugh, call Rudolph names, & refuse to let him participate in reindeer games. But then Santa figures out how Rudolph’s shiny nose can benefit HIM, and all the sudden it’s all good and Rudolph is just dandy.
Kris Kringle (Miracle on 34th Street)
On one hand Mr. Kringle insists that he is the real Santa Claus and goes to court to prove it. But, on the other hand, he is apparently living in an old folks’ home in NY City, which seems odd. Anyway, he teams up with attorney Fred Gailey and together they work their magic on jaded mother Delores Walker & her precocious daughter Susan.
The Winner: Kris Kringle. By the end of the movie Mr. Kringle has everyone convinced that he is Santa Claus, and he even gets little Susie the dream home she asked for. Edmund Gwenn won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role.
Best Animated Character
Yukon Cornelius (Rudolph)
Yukon is a bombastic prospector with a pick axe & a six shooter who’s searching for silver & gold. He befriends Rudolph & Hermie and they all end up on The Island of Misfit Toys. After Rudolph strikes out on his own Yukon saves him from The Abominable Snowman and is thought to have perished by going over the side of a cliff, but he turns up okay and actually tames the monster.
Linus Van Pelt (Charlie Brown)
Linus is Lucy’s little brother and Charlie Brown’s best buddy. Amidst a cast of characters with all sorts of neuroses & flaws Linus is the quiet voice of reason. When Charlie Brown reaches his breaking point and furiously demands to know what Christmas is about it is Linus who takes the stage and reads the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth found in the book of Luke.
The Grinch (The Grinch)
The Grinch is a weird looking green creature who lives in a cave and apparently hates everybody & everything. He especially hates Christmas, and formulates a plan to steal everything on Christmas Eve from The Whos down in Whoville. He steals their presents, their Christmas trees, & even their food. But when The Whos sing their happy little hearts out on Christmas morning even after having been robbed The Grinch realizes that Christmas isn’t just about “stuff”, his heart grows three sizes, & he returns everything to The Whos.
The Winner: Linus Van Pelt. Charlie Brown & Snoopy are cool, but Linus is a Peanuts character that shouldn’t be overlooked. Oh sure he carries a blanket and sucks on his thumb, but hey, we’ve all got our issues, right?? We think of our modern society as politically correct and scornful to God, but even a half century ago the powers-that-be weren’t comfortable with Scripture being read on their television special. They tried to convince Charles Shultz to take it out, but he adamantly refused. I don’t know whether we’d still be watching A Charlie Brown Christmas without that scene or not. I suppose we probably would…but it certainly wouldn’t have the same impact.
Best Supporting Actor
Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter, IAWL)
Barrymore was a very famous stage, screen, & radio actor in the early to mid 20th century. He even won a Best Actor Oscar in 1931, and for decades performed Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on the radio, which made him a natural choice to portray the richest & meanest man in Bedford Falls. Henry F. Potter is obviously a riff on Scrooge, except for the fact that we never see him punished for his crimes or realize the error of his ways. As far as we know he kept that $8000 misplaced by Uncle Billy, and that’s just evil.
Darren McGavin (The Old Man, A Christmas Story)
McGavin starred in a variety of movies & TV shows in a career that spanned a half century, but no other role made quite the impression as that of Ralphie Parker’s beleaguered father. The narrator refers to him only as The Old Man, and no other character ever uses his name. We watch The Old Man battle his furnace, haggle with a Christmas tree salesman, change a fuse “quicker than a jackrabbit”, & of course win a “major award” for a trivia contest. He’s grumpy & (allegedly) profane, but underneath it all he’s got a heart of gold.
Randy Quaid (Cousin Eddie, Christmas Vacation)
Quaid brought Cousin Eddie to the big screen in 1983’s Vacation, but was only a very small part of that movie. He doesn’t appear in 1985’s European Vacation, but in Christmas Vacation it is probably fair to say that Cousin Eddie is a significant source of the film’s most memorable moments. While most laugh hysterically at Eddie in his bathrobe emptying his RV’s toilet and loudly proclaiming to all of the Griswolds’ neighbors “Merry Christmas!! The shitter was full!!”, my favorite scene is right after he first arrives. As he & Clark are in the living room chatting about the RV he cautions Clark not to fall in love with it “cause we’re taking it with us when we leave here next month”.
The Winner: Darren McGavin. Tough category!! All three men are deserving. However, it has always been my contention that, while A Christmas Story is ostensibly about Ralphie and his dogged yearning for a Red Ryder BB gun, it is just as much about The Old Man. My own father used to hide a special present on Christmas just like The Old Man does in the movie, making us think that we were finished but then surprising us with one last gift. Obviously adults understand that Christmas isn’t about gifts, but for kids it’s kind of a big deal, and A Christmas Story captures that perfectly. McGavin was in his 60’s when he starred in the film, which would seem to make him a little too old to be a father to young boys like Ralphie & Randy. But consider the fact that the entire story is told thru Ralphie’s eyes, and when kids are little they’re parents seem old to them. It’s a nice touch, and, with all due respect to Charles Grodin & Daniel Stern, all you have to do is watch other films based on Jean Shepherd’s stories to realize that McGavin is the perfect choice to play The Old Man.
Charlie Brown & Linus (Charlie Brown)
Charlie Brown is the neurotic loveable loser that everybody walks all over. Linus is the seemingly immature thumb sucker whose best friend is his security blanket. The two complement each other perfectly, especially when Linus comes thru with surprisingly sage insight that alters Charlie Brown’s perspective for the better.
Clark Griswold & Cousin Eddie (Christmas Vacation)
Clark is the affable dunderhead who is apparently a brilliant food scientist at work but is constantly confounded by the conundrums of family life. He just wants to have a good old-fashioned family Christmas complete with a house full of relatives on the inside and adorned with a ton of lights on the outside. Cousin Eddie is the unemployed hillbilly with horrible fashion sense and an overactive libido. Yet, despite his faults one can’t help but like Eddie. Some of the best moments in Christmas Vacation involve Clark & Eddie interacting & bouncing memorable lines off one another. The powers-that-be obviously recognized the comedic potential during Cousin Eddie’s limited scenes in the first Vacation, and it was a brilliant decision to have he & Clark reunite in this film. They would team together again in Vegas Vacation, which is most certainly an inferior product.
Neal Page & Del Griffith (Planes, Trains, & Automobiles)
Odd couples are nothing new in buddy movies. As a matter of fact they’re the standard. It’s a tried & true formula that works most of the time depending on the quality of the script and the skill of the performers. With Planes, Trains, & Automobiles you have a story by John Hughes and Steve Martin & John Candy as the disparate duo, so what’s not to like??
The Winner: Neal Page & Del Griffith. The old axiom is that opposites attract, right?? What’s really fun about the movie is seeing the bond form between the two men and watching each of them evolve as one influences the other. Del is a gregarious extrovert who is hiding the painful fact that his wife died a few years ago and, despite knowing a lot of people & making acquaintances easily he doesn’t have any true friends or a home to get back to. Neal has a wife & kids, a solid job, & a nice house, but he’s kind of aloof & insensitive. After spending a few hellish days together Del understands how he tends to rub people the wrong way and Neal becomes a little more generous & approachable. This isn’t your typical comedy where the goal is to be as profane as possible, get laughs from over-the-top stunts, or crack jokes about sex & bodily functions. This is a John Hughes comedy where characters matter, and it doesn’t get much better than the two leads.
Henry F. Potter (IAWL)
He’s back!! As mentioned, Mr. Potter is a 20th century take on Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s wealthy, mean, selfish, & hell bent on putting the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan out of business. Near the film’s conclusion he ends up with $8000 in cash that absentminded Uncle Billy loses, but does he come forward to straighten out the mess?? No!! Mr. Potter would be perfectly content to see George Bailey dragged off to jail on Christmas Eve, the Building & Loan go under, and the entire Bailey family suffer. Thankfully George’s friends come to the rescue, but Potter never pays for his crimes. Well…atleast he didn’t until Saturday Night Live resolved the situation.
Scut Farkas (A Christmas Story)
Bullying has become a much talked about issue the past few years, but the truth is that school bullies have existed forever, and Scut Farkas is the quintessential bully. He & his toady Grover Dill corner the smaller kids and physically torture them just for the pleasure of making them say uncle. He even looks evil, with braces on his teeth, a coonskin cap, & yellow eyes!! Unfortunately for Scut Farkas he runs into Ralphie right after he’s been warned about shooting his eye out one time too many, and Ralphie takes out all of his pent up frustration on the stunned bully, a scene that has to be immensely satisfying for anyone who’s ever been pushed around.
Frank Shirley (Christmas Vacation)
While Scut Farkas is the epitome of a school bully, Mr. Shirley is the prototypical arrogant boss, looking down at “the little people” who do the real work in his company and being too above it all to even learn their names. His biggest sin in Christmas Vacation is replacing what must have been a sizeable annual Christmas bonus for employees with a subscription to a Jelly of the Month Club. I suppose whether or not it is proper for employees to expect a Christmas bonus as a regular part of their salary would be a fun debate, but I think we can all agree that any boss who alters the accepted bonus structure for whatever reason should atleast inform everyone of that decision. To his credit Mr. Shirley decides to reinstate the Christmas bonuses (after being kidnapped by Cousin Eddie).
The Winner: Scut Farkas. This might seem like a little bit of an upset. First of all, I just love the name Scut Farkas. Secondly, if A Christmas Story would have been solely about Ralphie’s pursuit of a BB gun it might have become tiresome rather quickly, but since there are several other subplots weaved into the film it all gels into a potpourri of Americana that makes one chuckle & gives us the warm fuzzies at the same time. In our hypersensitive, overly neurotic, politically correct modern society bullying has become a topic that everyone wrings their hands about as if it is a harbinger of The Apocalypse, but I have always controversially opined that if your kid is so weak-minded & soft that they either contemplate or actually commit suicide because they’ve been bullied then you as a parent need to look in the mirror and recognize where you failed. The scene where a fed up Ralphie beats the snot out of Scut Farkas while uttering a torrent of inaudible obscenities is really important because it exemplifies exactly how to handle a bully…punch ‘em in the mouth.
Best Supporting Actress
Melinda Dillon (Mrs. Parker, A Christmas Story)
Much like her on-screen husband Melinda Dillon had a long & underappreciated career during which she was nominated for a Tony Award and two Oscars. She also never receives a first name in A Christmas Story…Ralphie just refers to her as Ma or my mother. Mrs. Parker isn’t quite as colorful as The Old Man, but she embodies the typical overburdened housewife, always at the beck & call of her husband & children. Mrs. Parker stands up to her husband after shattering his “major award” (Accidentally?? On purpose?? Who knows??), is horrified when hearing about Ralphie dropping an F bomb, & has a well-deserved moment of levity at the Chinese restaurant. I never realized duck was that funny.
Maureen O’Hara (Delores Walker, Miracle on 34th Street)
Mrs. Walker is a big shot at Macy’s Department Store and is in charge of the Thanksgiving Day Parade, so she must be a pretty smart cookie. We should remember that this film was released in 1947, so such a strong, successful, independent female character was a little out-of-the-box. She’s also a single mother, which had to be rare in movies back then. The reasons for her cynicism are never detailed, but we can read between the lines. As things progress both her neighbor/boyfriend Fred Gailey and Kris Kringle break down the walls that Mrs. Walker has put up, to the point that she is able to recapture some of the faith that she has lost.
Edie McClurg (Planes, Trains, & Automobiles)
McClurg is best known for playing meddlesome supporting characters on TV shows like The Hogan Family and in in films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. She only has one scene in Planes, Trains, & Automobiles, but holy moly is it unforgettable. She portrays an exceedingly chipper rental car agent who encounters Steve Martin’s character Neal Page right when he’s reached the end of his rope and completely loses it by hurling a deluge of F bombs. Her simple response is absolutely perfect and totally hilarious. I’m not one who equates laughter with profanity, an abyss that our culture fell into decades ago. However, it really works in that particular scene and McClurg plays her small yet vital role flawlessly.
The Winner: Maureen O’Hara. O’Hara was a red-headed Irish lass whose Hollywood career spanned more than fifty years. She starred in a number of westerns directed by John Ford alongside John Wayne. Her final film role was in an underrated 1991 romantic dramedy called Only the Lonely as John Candy’s feisty mother. It’s worth your time if you’ve never seen it. She was perfectly cast on Miracle on 34th Street, a role that required strength & spirit, with just a hint of vulnerable brokenness.
Best Inanimate Object
The Leg Lamp (A Christmas Story)
The infamous leg lamp was modeled on the logo of Nehi, a soda pop that reached its peak popularity in the 1920’s & 30’s. In 1955 the company changed its name to the Royal Crown Company (makers of RC Cola obviously). In 2008 the brand became part of the Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group. Nehi sodas…most notably grape & orange…are still produced, although they’re not as easy to find as brands like Coke & Pepsi. Anyway, the “major award” that The Old Man wins in A Christmas Story is supposed to be an allusion to “pop art”, which is loosely defined as “a challenge to traditional fine art that includes imagery from popular and mass culture, such as advertising, comic books and mundane cultural objects.” It’s a goofy yet endearing subplot in the movie that has become such a huge part of its pop culture status that one can purchase your very own leg lamp (I have one), as well as buy leg lamp ornaments, make leg lamp cookies, or find it in a plethora of other incarnations each holiday season.
The Sad Little Tree (Charlie Brown)
When A Charlie Brown Christmas was produced back in the 60’s the world had just been introduced to aluminum Christmas trees with foil needles and illumination from below via a rotating color wheel. They never quite caught on, in large part due to the scorn & derision with which they are treated in the beloved animated special. Artificial trees are still very popular, but we decided long ago that, while convenience is a good thing, it is preferable for our fake tree to atleast look like the real thing. As part of its subtle social commentary about the commercialization of Christmas the show has disillusioned Charlie Brown rescue a real but very tiny & rather unattractive tree for use in the Christmas play he is directing. At first everyone…including Snoopy…laughs at him & makes fun of the tree, but soon enough they come around and decorate it very nicely. As an apartment dweller I have a small four foot tree that sits on a bookshelf, so while I appreciate the beauty of huge, lavishly festooned trees, there will always be a special place in my heart for a small, humble Christmas tree.
The RV (Christmas Vacation)
When Cousin Eddie & family coast into Chicago on fumes (their gas money ran out in Gurney) it isn’t in a car, van, or even a Queen Wagon Family Truckster…it’s in a huge, dingy, hideously painted RV, or as Clark Griswold refers to it, “the tenement on wheels”. It turns out that the family is actually living in in because they lost their house. Catherine is busy taking care of all of their kids, and Eddie hasn’t held a job for seven years (he’s holding out for a management position). We don’t really see much of the RV, and when one really stops to ponder there’s not much funny about the family’s dire straits…but let’s not overthink things.
The Winner: The Leg Lamp. Who could have ever fathomed 35 years ago that a ridiculous household accessory would become the cherished symbol of a classic Christmas movie?? In today’s business & entertainment climate there would be a predetermined marketing strategy to merchandise the object and maximize profits for the movie studio. Sometimes those tactics actually work, but it’s so much more fun when popularity occurs organically & out of the blue.
Best Christmas Village
Whoville (The Grinch)
According to the book Horton Hears a Who!, the town of Whoville is located within a floating speck of dust placed onto a clover flower. Its citizens…The Whos… are whimsical, furry humanoids with canine snouts, warm hearts, and welcoming spirits. Of course just north of Whoville is Mount Crumpet, a high mountain with a cave at its peak where The Grinch resides.
Bedford Falls (IAWL)
Bedford Falls is allegedly a fictional representation of Seneca Falls, a mill town in upstate New York that’s about a hundred miles from Buffalo, 50 miles from Rochester (a city mentioned in the film), and 65 miles from Elmira (another city referenced). George Bailey wants desperately to “shake the dust of this crummy little town” so he can go explore the world, but of course we know he never quite makes it. However, with the help of guardian angel Clarence, George does discover that life in Bedford Falls and his relationships with its various citizens is actually pretty cool.
Hohman, IN (A Christmas Story)
Hohman is a fictional representation of Jean Shepherd’s actual hometown of Hammond, a city in the northwest tip of Indiana on the shores of Lake Michigan and less than an hour from Chicago. One doesn’t get a real sense of Hohman’s vibe just from watching A Christmas Story, but if you read Shep’s books he goes into more descriptive detail of his childhood environment. The movie was actually filmed mostly in Canada, and the Parker house is in Cleveland, OH. It was renovated and opened as a tourist destination several years ago.
The Winner: Bedford Falls. I hate snow & cold weather, so I could never see myself living in a northeast winter wonderland. However, other than its undesirable climate Bedford Falls seems like a nice town…small enough where everybody knows everybody, but big enough that there are a few things going on. Much like George Bailey I have always had a love/hate relationship with my hometown, and just like George I’ll never escape it to go on adventures I’ve dreamt about. I’ve identified with IAWL & George Bailey since I was a youngster, and the movie has served as a kind of angel that has opened my eyes about the positive aspects of my life and my own Bedford Falls.
Bob Clark (A Christmas Story)
Bob Clark might be best known to non-Christmas fans as the director of 1981’s teen sex comedy Porky’s & its 1983 sequel. Clark also directed the 1974 slasher flick Black Christmas and produced a 1975 film called Moonrunners, which eventually evolved into the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. Sadly Clark and his adult son were killed in a car crash by a drunk driver about a decade ago.
Frank Capra (IAWL)
Capra was one of the most beloved film directors of the first half of the 20th century. He helmed classics like It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, & Meet John Doe, and won six Academy Awards out of 15 nominations. “Capra-corn” was a term coined to describe his particular brand of sentimental Americana, and Lord knows we could use more of that nowadays.
John Hughes (Planes, Trains, & Automobiles)
Hughes was the voice of my generation, writing/directing/producing modern classics like Mr. Mom, the Vacation series, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Home Alone, & Uncle Buck.
The Winner: Frank Capra. According to my research a director “controls a film’s artistic & dramatic aspects and visualizes the screenplay while guiding the technical crew and actors in the fulfillment of that vision, and has a key role in choosing the cast, production design, & the creative aspects of filmmaking.” In my experience as a fan it seems like most directors create films with a particular atmosphere, and if you enjoy one of their movies there’s a good chance you’ll like their other work. I’m not sure that’s the case with Clark, but it certainly holds true for Hughes & Capra. Frank Capra said of IAWL in later years that “It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen…the film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be President. I’m proud, but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.” Upon its release Capra described IAWL as being about “the individual’s belief in himself” and said that he made it “to combat a modern trend toward atheism”.
Christmas Time is Here (Charlie Brown)
Not only did the suits behind A Charlie Brown Christmas express concerns about the celebrated Biblical reference, but they were also anxious about using jazz music for a children’s cartoon. Vince Guaraldi was a pianist & composer with a solid career when he took on the task of writing the score for the first Peanuts animated special at the suggestion of the show’s producer Lee Mendelson. After the success of A Charlie Brown Christmas Guaraldi would collaborate on 17 more Peanuts specials. I still use his song Linus & Lucy as the ringtone for my sister, but my favorite tune from the Christmas show is Christmas Time is Here, a somewhat melancholy melody that talks about olden times, ancient rhymes, & yuletide by the fireside. There is an elegant instrumental version, and the song with lyrics is sung by the children’s choir from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, CA. It’s been covered many times by everyone from Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney to Chicago, Mariah Carey, & Kenny Loggins, but the original(s) are by far the best.
Welcome Christmas (The Grinch)
Oh sure, You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch is a fun novelty song that still gets its share of radio play every December, but Welcome Christmas, as sung by those happy little Whos, is an undeniable delight. Some of the lyrics are Seussian gibberish, but the song does have heartwarming turns of phrase like “Christmas day is in our grasp so long as we have hands to clasp” and “Christmas day will always be just so long as we have we”. It really drives home the ultimate message of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which is “maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store…maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more”.
Mess Around (Planes, Trains, & Automobiles)
Mess Around was recorded in 1953 and was one of Ray Charles’ earliest hits. The song is a backdrop for one of my favorite scenes in Planes, Trains, & Automobiles in which John Candy’s slovenly chatterbox Del Griffith REALLY enjoys it while driving on the highway late at night. I’ll resist the urge to break down that entire scene, but suffice to say it is very very funny and really showcases Candy’s comedic talent. Who knew it was possible to do brilliant physical comedy behind the wheel of a car?? I’m not sure why that particular song was chosen other than the fact that it’s lively & fun, but as a fan of jazz & blues I am always appreciative of such songs’ inclusion in a great movie.
The Winner: Christmas Time is Here. I’m a big fan of Christmas carols, but this one is slightly off the beaten path. It’s a little too esoteric to be sung while you’re trekking around the neighborhood caroling, but it is such a classy & beautiful song. My town has a holiday jazz event every December, usually in a cozy venue with good food and a talented potpourri of musicians. They play a variety of tunes, but it’s a sure bet that at some point they’ll bust out a velvety smooth cover of Christmas Time is Here, and it’s always one of the highlights of my holiday season.
Donna Reed (Mary Hatch Bailey, IAWL)
Donna Reed’s underappreciated career spanned more than four decades. Along the way she starred in her own titular sitcom in the 1960’s and won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1953. In 1984 she became a controversial replacement as JR Ewing’s mother on the nighttime soap Dallas and famously didn’t get along with star Larry Hagman. As Mary Hatch in IAWL she is in love with George Bailey her entire life and finally marries him & has a family. When George is in financial trouble due to Uncle Billy’s absentmindedness it is Mary who rallies practically the entire population of Bedford Falls to save her husband from going to jail.
Natalie Wood (Susan Walker, Miracle on 34th Street)
Natalie Wood was only 8 years old when she starred as the precocious Susan Walker, who has been taught by her mother not to believe in Santa Claus or any other “fairy tales”. It takes Kris Kringle himself to restore her faith & imagination. Wood would go on to have a very successful career, scoring three Academy Award nominations before the age of 25. Sadly she met an untimely & mysterious demise at only 43 years old.
Beverly D’Angelo (Ellen Griswold, Christmas Vacation)
D’Angelo has starred as Ellen Griswold…the loving & supportive wife of inept Clark and dedicated mother of Rusty & Audrey…in five Vacation films (I’m being generous by including the ill-conceived reboot from a couple of years ago). Outside of that series though she has had quite the career, starring in over five dozen films and receiving a Golden Globe nomination in 1980 for her role as Patsy Cline in the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter.
The Winner: Donna Reed. Thru the prism of our politically correct modern society “supportive wife & mother” roles are viewed with dubious disdain, but most films & TV shows are products of their time & culture. If one really looks at Mary Bailey with a clear perspective it becomes apparent that she is a great role model. She is educated, resilient, resolute, & devoted. We cannot overlook the fact that Mr. Potter never gives back the $8000 and it is Mary who goes out and saves George from landing in prison. Oh sure, Clarence helps George understand the value of his life, but once all of that happens and George is back in the present timeline he is prepared to turn himself in and selflessly take the punishment for financial malfeasance. In other words, though he’s happy to be alive he’s still kind of giving up. Not Mary!! She understands what George has meant to his neighbors, and by golly she knows that they kind of owe him. We should all be so fortunate to have such a compassionate & insightful partner in life.
Best Adapted Screenplay
A Christmas Story (from Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash)
Actually Shep’s stories are collected in a few books, and while A Christmas Story is mainly taken from In God We Trust there are a few bits & pieces from the other books. When you read the books you get a much better sense of Shep’s acerbic wit & comedic flair. The movie has its subversive moments, but is undoubtedly “family friendly”. That being said, it still effectively translates the author’s original intent, and thanks to brilliant casting, gives an eclectic tapestry of characters vibrant life.
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (from the book of the same name)
Dr. Seuss is brilliant in his own unique way, but let’s be honest…he’s not exactly Shakespeare. It’s a children’s book, and since the animated special is only a half hour in length and doesn’t try to paint outside the lines what you see on your TV screen is pretty much word-for-word from the source material. That’s not meant as criticism at all. Kudos must be given for accuracy & efficiency.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (from the song of the same name)
Rudolph was initially a children’s story created for an ad campaign. That story was then adapted into a song. And then the song was transformed into a brilliant animated special that we still enjoy after many decades. Through it all the basic idea of who Rudolph is and some of the obstacles he faced has remained consistent. The television special adds little flourishes like Yukon Cornelius, Hermie the Elf, & The Island of Misfit Toys, but all are welcome additions to the story.
The Winner: A Christmas Story. This comes down to simplicity & effort. As noted, both Rudolph & The Grinch are largely precise reproductions of the source material. Rudolph adds a character or two or three, and The Grinch throws in a couple of songs, but for the most part they are animated versions of the stories on which they are based. Translating Jean Shepherd’s stories into little vignettes and then putting all of it together to form a coherent movie deserves praise, and the fact that the film is damn near brilliant is an amazing accomplishment.
Peter Billingsley (Ralphie Parker, A Christmas Story)
Billingsley got his start in show business as a kid in various commercials, most notably the Messy Marvin campaign for Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup. His big break was in the 1981 film Paternity starring Burt Reynolds, and he also co-hosted the comedic reality show Real People on NBC. These days he works mostly behind the camera as a producer for films like Iron Man, The Break-Up, Four Christmases, & Elf.
James Stewart (George Bailey, IAWL)
Jimmy Stewart’s legendary career lasted sixty years, during which he starred in over 80 movies. He received five Academy Award nominations and won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1941 for The Philadelphia Story. His celebrated filmography includes unforgettable performances in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Shop Around the Corner, Harvey, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Glenn Miller Story, & The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Chevy Chase (Clark Griswold, Christmas Vacation)
Chevy Chase was one of the original Not Ready for Primetime Players on Saturday Night Live and was the first “anchor” of the show’s Weekend Update segment. After leaving SNL in the midst of the second season he embarked on a hit & miss movie career, with the Vacation series definitely being one of the highlights. Chase’s particular blend of physical comedy & deadpan humor isn’t everyone’s cup o’ tea, but he deserves credit for creating one of the most endearing characters in comedy film history, and for a contribution to the Christmas sub-genre that has stood the test of time.
The Winner: James Stewart. Jimmy rarely played the debonair, sophisticated, wealthy guy in movies. He spent his career portraying ordinary men facing extraordinary circumstances, the kinds of characters with which most of us can identify on some level. I first watched It’s A Wonderful Life when I was a teenager and immediately felt a connection with George Bailey. In real life we don’t get an opportunity to have an angel show us the positive impact our lives have had on others…we just have to figure that out for ourselves. But thanks to IAWL it is atleast a point of view that some may consider during tough times.