Charles Dickens’s landmark publication A Christmas Carol (1843), the story of Ebenezer Scrooge the miserly misanthrope who is transformed by a Christmas Eve visit from three ghosts who show him how his past actions have led to his present spiritual void and offer him the chance to alter his dismal destiny by expressing compassion for his fellow citizens, became an instant bestseller which has never gone out of print. Adapted 130+ times for the screen including my personal favorite from 1951 with Alastair Sim in the title role, A Christmas Carol created a cultural archetype of the Christmas season epiphany. Nearly every holiday film is on some level the story of an individual experiencing a crisis which is followed by a chance encounter which leads him to reclaim his faith and spiritual wholeness. While the plots of some of these films may seem overly sentimental, we are still drawn to them. Consequently, every holiday season fresh new offerings of this age old story along with the old standbys are available for streaming.
I have selected three Christmas movies devoid of Hollywood’s new-fangled wokeness which illustrate the principal character’s initial crisis and the transformative encounter which ultimately leads him to reaffirm his faith.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Celebrating its 75th anniversary, Frank Capra’s celebrated film which is based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story The Greatest Gift (1943) is the story of George Bailey (James Stewart) whose dreams of exploring the world were dashed years ago when his family’s circumstances forced him to stay in Bedford Falls to manage his family’s Building and Loan. And while George loves his wife Mary (Donna Reed) and his four children, he still harbors a grain of resentment about his limited financial prospects and his forever tethering to Bedford Falls, which is largely controlled by its wealthiest and meanest citizen Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George reaches a boiling point on Christmas Eve when his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) accidentally loses $8,000 in bank customer deposits, a situation which will likely lead to bankruptcy and prison for George. Consequently, George considers taking his own life as way to spare his family the shame and to also provide them with his life insurance money. His efforts are thwarted by the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) who shows him what the world would have been like if he had never been born. It’s a Wonderful Life, which opened in 1946 to mixed reviews, became an accidental Christmas classic after its copyright expired and the television networks started broadcasting it seasonally. The proliferation of streaming networks continue to introduce this inspirational film with amazing performances by Jimmy Stewart and the rest of the cast to new generations.
The Family Man (2000)
The Family Man stars Nicolas Cage as Jack Campbell a self-involved, single, wealthy Manhattan-based, investment banker who scoffs at his employees for wanting a day off to celebrate Christmas. Following a chance encounter in a convenience store, Jack is catapulted into a parallel universe where he finds himself married to his former college girlfriend Kate (Téa Leoni), now a non-for-profit lawyer, who he hasn’t seen since he went to London following graduation thirteen years ago. In this dreamscape world which plays homage to both A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, Jack’s financial circumstances are significantly diminished with his Manhattan penthouse replaced by a modest suburban NJ home and his investment banker career by a job as a retail tire salesman in his father-in-law’s store. He is also the father of two children. Like Scrooge and George Bailey, Jack is visited by a ghost in the form of Don Cheadle who first appears in the convenience store. This un-named emissary tells Jack that his new twilight zone existence where no one from his former life recognizes him is “just a glimpse” and that a glimpse by definition is temporary.
The plot is largely dedicated to Jack’s attempts to masquerade as a suburban family man while simultaneously trying to return to his old life. However, along the way, he becomes attached to Kate and the children and endeavors to find a way to merge the two worlds. While The Family Man has a few continuity issues and some scenes which strain credulity, it is still a highly perceptive and entertaining film where Jack’s redemption is genuine, In addition to top rate performances by Cage, Leoni, and Cheadle, the film also features the marvelous Saul Rubinek as Jack’s colleague and a very young Mackenzie Vega as his daughter Annie, who realizes right away that Jack is not her father, but is willing to feed him the necessary information so that he can play the part.
The Holiday (2006)
The Holiday stars Kate Winslet, as Iris, an editor from Surrey, England and Cameron Diaz as Amanda, a Los Angeles based film trailer producer who connect on the internet to swap homes for a two week holiday home exchange. Iris and Amanda have a lot in common. They are too busy with work to take vacations and more importantly, they also have been betrayed by the men in their lives. The film depicts the adventures which the two women have during their temporary residence switch. The Holiday is a vastly enjoyable film with a sophistication that defies its romantic comedy genre. While there are no midnight visitors imagined or otherwise, both Iris and Amanda are still battling ghosts. Iris is trying to get over being jilted by Jasper (Rufus Sewell) and Amanda is still smarting over the knowledge that her boyfriend Ethan (Edward Burns) cheated on her. She also never got over her parents’ divorce and buries herself in work to avoid intimacy. Over the course of the film, we observe the two heroines letting go of their everyday obsessions to welcome new experiences including potential romantic partners. Iris befriends Miles (Jack Black), a film composer colleague of Ethan’s, and Amanda becomes involved with Iris’s brother Graham (Jude Law), a widowed editor with two young daughters. Films which depict these holiday turning points usually feature characters employed in a financial services capacity with the intimation that the protagonists are obsessed with money. The film avoids this stereotype as the four principal characters are creative types. The Holiday is a charming film with nuanced performances by the leads, especially the under-rated Cameron Diaz. The cast also features Eli Wallach as a retired Hollywood screenwriter.
The Dickensian character who faces a practical or a psychological crisis during the holidays will continue to populate future films. We, the viewers, crave these stories because we so identify with the feeling of having no way out of our particular dilemmas. So, we turn to the movies for affirmation that there is a path which restores our faith and reconnects us to our community.