It started as a joke. A friend asked me what I was doing for Easter, and I answered that as it was snowing I thought I’d forget about Easter and simply reprise Christmas instead, and then after due consideration I decided that was exactly what I’d do.
I didn’t put up any decorations, my sister didn’t invite me round for turkey and all the trimmings, and I couldn’t convince anyone to send me cards or give me presents, but for my weekend DVD viewing I made some glaringly ‘out of season’ selections.
A Christmas Carol (1999)
I’m guessing everyone is familiar with the story, and if not then shame on you. Patrick Stewart makes a passable Scrooge and this is a passable adaptation of Dickens’ classic story. It starts well enough, with Marley’s funeral and a suitably penny pitching Scrooge playing against Richard E. Grant’s lanky and calculatingly inoffensive Cratchit, but from the appearance of Marley’s Ghost onwards things go a little off track, with some ropey sfx. None of the other spirits were especially impressive, with the supposedly minatory third a distinct embarrassment. In the wake of the first spirit encounter, the whole thing is awash in sentimentality, with Scrooge shown how much he has missed out on through making the wrong choices in life, and having seen the error of his ways he becomes a reformed character. Personally I thought his conversion was a little too easily won and Stewart not quite as convincing as the new model Christmasophile, but the former at least was the fault of the source material. It was engaging enough in its way, with heart firmly in the right place.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Frank Capra’s masterpiece and perhaps the best known Christmas film of them all. James Stewart plays George Bailey, who has given up on all the things he longed for as a young man to stay on in Bedford Falls and run a loan company, the only institution that stands between the poor people of the town and grasping plutocrat Potter. When it looks like things have finally come unravelled for him, George contemplates suicide which is the cue for the intervention of Clarence Odbody, an angel out to win his wings. Clarence teaches George to appreciate all that he has achieved by showing him what the town would have been like had he never been born, and then in a tear jerking finale all the people George has helped over the years rally round to save him. This is pretty much near perfect, with a towering performance from Stewart, who manages to bring plenty of nuance to the role of George Bailey when he could so easily have been a goody-two-shoes stereotype. Particularly effective is the segment where George is wandering the town where he had never been born and seeing how much has changed, people he has known all his life not recognising him and his wife running away scared from this stranger who claims he is married to her, though I also have to concede that I liked the bright lights and clubs of Potterville at night somewhat more than I did the sedate streets of Bedford Falls (the film champions a very austere and limited vision of happiness). In some ways this section brought to mind a similar conceit in the Back to the Future movies, and I’ve seen some of the ideas used in horror stories over the years. I’ll also admit to being rather fond of the bumbling Clarence, an angel viewed from a unique perspective, and I suspect hugely influential on future portrayals of divine messengers. Overall this was pretty much the feel good movie to crown them all, and after watching it I certainly felt good.
And I was delighted to note that It’s a Wonderful Life was playing on a television at one point in this film, directed by Joe Dante. Inventor Randall Peltzer brings home a cute furry creature named Gizmo as a Christmas present for son Billy, but there are rules, and of course the rules get broken. When wet Gizmo sprouts fur balls that develop into other Mogwai, but nowhere near as amiable as their ‘father’. When they’re fed after midnight these are transformed into the thoroughly nasty Gremlins of the title, and before you can say ‘Merry Christmas’ the town of Kingston Falls is overrun by the malicious critters. This was a lot of fun, though at times I definitely thought they laid it on a bit too thick, as with the continual jokes about failed inventor Randall and the scene with the Gremlins in the tavern. And when romantic interest Kate tells Billy why she doesn’t enjoy Christmas, a moment that should have been pitched as black comedy becomes pure absurdism. On the plus side the Gremlins are a wonderful concept, in their behaviour mimicking the worst traits of human beings, so that we laugh with recognition as they sit round a table and play cards or fill out a cinema to munch popcorn and singalong with the dwarves in Snow White (possibly the most rowdy cinema audience ever). There are also some gleefully inventive death scenes, with Gremlins despatched by microwave and blender, sword and kitchen knife. It’s not a classic Christmas film, but it was a lot of fun.
It occurs to me that a theme running through all three films is that of the greedy, grasping plutocrat, who looks down on and bullies those less well off, and on the day that our ConDem overlords begin their dismantling of the welfare state that’s a theme which seems particularly pertinent. Scrooge is redeemed while Potter, presumably, dies old and alone but wealthy (we know he isn’t happy, but he doesn’t know it). Mrs Deagle in Gremlins is fired out of an upper window of her house and buried head first in a snowbank, after which possibly fatal humiliation she doesn’t appear in the story again.
As far as the ConDems go, I vote for Option Three.