Deck the Halls with ‘Die Hard’!
TORONTO (CP) – How do you like your holiday film fare?
Does your family look forward to hearing Tiny Tim call out his ever-optimistic toast “God bless us everyone” in “A Christmas Carol?”
Or do you prefer edgier yuletide offerings? Perhaps Bruce Willis uttering the infamous: “Now I have a machine gun. Ho. Ho. Ho.” in “Die Hard”?
Whatever your preference, there’s a pervading sense that they aren’t making them like they used to.
This month, many households will sit down for an annual ritual – the umpteenth viewing of that well-aged classic, often one that takes them back to simpler, innocent times.
Arguably, the big five repeaters are: “A Christmas Carol” (the Alastair Sim 1951 version), “Miracle on 34th Street (the 1947 original), Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), the colourful 1954 Bing Crosby musical “White Christmas” and – the most recent entry into the seasonal club – 1983’s nostalgia-laden comedy “A Christmas Story.”
The International Movie Database lists some 300 films with Christmas themes. Some three dozen of them are variations on Charles Dickens’ immortal “A Christmas Carol.” Yet only one, with Sims’ indelible portrayal of the redeemed curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge, stands the test of time.
Of course some latter-day movie fans would nominate a holiday fave far removed from the old school, like the made-in-Canada slasher flick “Black Christmas” or “Die Hard,” which finds Willis’s steadfast cop John McClane trapped in an L.A. office tower seized by a gang of terrorist-thugs on Christmas Eve.
When he takes out one of the bad guys and arms himself for battle, McClane sends his “ho, ho, ho” message down an elevator shaft along with the bloody body.
Just oozes holiday sentiment, no?
Yet even “Die Hard” was made back in 1988, leaving many to suspect there are few, if any, films in the current pipeline destined for classic status. Perhaps Tim Allen’s “Santa Clause” trilogy, or the digitally animated “Polar Express” or “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
Charles Keil, a professor of cinema studies at the University of Toronto, believes Hollywood will have to step things up for another classic to emerge.
For one thing, says Keil, today’s filmmakers tend to avoid purely spiritual themes (this year’s “The Nativity Story” is an exception), opting instead for slapstick and special effects to appeal to a kids’ market.
“The major distributors like to shy away from anything that is overtly religious – you could say Christian or sect-based – because it would alienate a good part of their audience,” he explains.
“Films like ‘Elf’ or ‘Christmas with the Kranks’ are aiming for that. I mean in a way they’re still about the message that supposedly Christmas brings, which is this notion of good will to all men and finding your inner good person (but) they leaven it with humour.”
Today’s holiday films then, adds Keil, represent our idea of spirituality in an ironic age.
Prior to “A Christmas Story” in which Depression-era kid Ralphie pines for a Red Ryder BB gun despite elders’ warnings that he could shoot his eye out, Christmas favourites were oh so serious. “A Christmas Carol” – actually a bona fide ghost story – and “It’s a Wonderful Life” bear extremely dark themes of despair and death before their redemptive finales.
Keil sees two reasons why some became perennial hits. They languished in the public domain for years, which means TV stations could broadcast any old print every holiday without paying royalties, giving such titles indelible public exposure.
Also, back in the days before TV and video became primary re-run outlets, Hollywood didn’t make films for repeat viewings (the odd blockbuster being the exception). They would play in theatres once and then disappear into the vault.
Since then, the truly time-tested classics have emerged, not because of any marketing ploy, but because the audience genuinely loved them.
“These are films for the ages precisely because they don’t seem to be calculated attempts to make the season profitable,” Keil says.
Here are five favourite moments from popular holiday movies:
-Staples? In “Scrooged” (1988) Bill Murray is Frank Cross, a Scrooge-like TV executive planning a live holiday special. He shocks a stage hand who’s having trouble keeping tiny antlers glued to a mouse for a miniature scene. “Have you tried staples?” Cross asks callously.
-In the finale of 1951’s “A Christmas Carol” Alastair Sim’s Scrooge is deliriously happy to awaken Christmas morning and find he still has time to redeem himself. He performs an impromptu headstand still wearing his nightgown, which sends his screaming housekeeper fleeing in terror.
-In “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), little Natalie Wood, still skeptical about the existence of Santa, watches wide-eyed from the sidelines as the department store Santa her mother hired comforts a homesick orphan girl from Holland by talking and singing to her in Dutch.
-In one of the rare comic scenes from “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), Jimmy Stewart is walking comely Donna Reed home after their accidental dunking in a swimming pool. He ponders the right thing to do when Reed finds herself trapped inside a bush, apparently naked, while he holds her coat.
-In “A Christmas Story” (1988), little Ralphie’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas takes him to a grumpy department store Santa who promptly boots him down the exit slide, but not before repeating the discouraging warning already offered him by parents and teachers: “You’ll shoot yer eye out, kid.”
Deck the Halls with ‘Die Hard’!