Thanks to television, Christmas movies almost inevitably have longer lives than other sorts of films. Sometimes that’s because they’re inherently great: It’s A Wonderful Life immediately comes to mind. But sometimes it’s because they fill those long, empty, holiday-adjacent stretches of airtime. Quality doesn’t even have to enter into it. As I write this, I’m sure I could turn to a nearby television and find Christmas With The Kranks or Surviving Christmas playing on some channel, because Thanksgiving is over and college bowl games haven’t started yet. Christmas films are a bit like Christmas songs: They get taken out and dusted off each year without fail, or much consideration. Does anyone actually like Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time”? No, that’s impossible. But playing it has become a tradition, and nobody said something had to be good to be a tradition.
So what makes some Christmas films fall by the wayside? For this installment of Triple Feature, I stirred up some ghosts of Christmas movies past—holiday films that most remember hazily, if at all—to determine what made them drift from the public consciousness. With the first, a Thomas Edison-produced 1910 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it’s easy to figure out part of why it’s been forgotten. It’s from deep in the recesses of the silent-film era, a region now visited mostly by hardened cinephiles. It isn’t even the first film adaptation of A Christmas Carol. That honor (probably) belongs to Scrooge Or, Marley’s Ghost from 1901. I can’t make any claims to it being a great adaptation, either. But it is interesting. And, hey, it’s only 10 minutes long, so why not take a moment to give it a look? (It’s also available through Kino as part of a collection called A Christmas Past):
Say what you will about the film, it gets it done, somehow squeezing all the action of Dickens’ novella-length story into a single reel. True, it does make some cuts for economy’s sake. Poor Scrooge never seems to leave his room as he visits Christmases past, present, and future via the miracle of double-exposure. But the essence of the story remains in place, in part because, as ever, the film hinges on the performance of whoever plays Scrooge. Here, that’s Marc McDermott, a Broadway star then just beginning a film career that would see him play in 180 films before his death in 1929. Remarkably, McDermott was only 28 when he made the film. He gives a big, theatrical performance that keeps perfectly with the style of the time, and he remains, to my eyes, pretty effective as he uses body language to great effect to convey Scrooge’s torment.
But even if ours wasn’t a talkie-favoring era, I have a feeling this version wouldn’t be shown all that often. It’s a matter of numbers. A Christmas Carol has been adapted to film approximately 7,000 times, and apart from the justly revered 1951 adaptation starring Alistair Sim, each new version tends to supplant the one before it. My first encounter with A Christmas Carol came via Scrooge, a not-so-great 1970 musical with songs by Leslie Bricusse and a youngish Albert Finney as the old miser. Scrooge used to play with alarming frequency when I was a kid, but in time, Finney gave way to George C. Scott, who gave way to Patrick Stewart, who starred in well-regarded TV adaptations in the ’80s and ’90s, respectively. The generation growing up now will probably have a similar experience with last year’s creepy Jim Carrey/Robert Zemeckis dead-eyed animated version. I pity them.
Unless they’re bad little kids who, if our next film is to be believed, deserve punishment. Severe punishment. Well, it’s mostly the adults who get punished in the 1980 film Christmas Evil, a.k.a. You Better Watch Out, a.k.a. Terror In Toyland. Christmas Evil tends to get overshadowed by the more famous/infamous 1984 film Silent Night, Deadly Night. Both feature protagonists who go on killing sprees while wearing Santa outfits. But only Silent Night, Deadly Night caused a national outrage upon its release, forever cementing itself in the public consciousness as the killer Santa movie. Make no mistake, though—Christmas Evil is the more memorable of the two. That doesn’t make it a great movie, but it is far better and more thoughtful than a killer-Santa movie has any right to be. And it has one of the most striking final scenes I’ve even seen in any sort of movie.
Brandon Maggart stars as Harry, a factory foreman at Jolly Dreams toys, a manufacturer of sub-standard toys staffed by careless employees. His job fills him with rage, but his naughty list stretches further than the Jolly Dreams payroll. From the rooftop of his apartment building, where he lives in a shabby flat filled to the brim with Christmas memorabilia, Harry watches the neighborhood children through binoculars. He adds the good kids to the good list, but naughty kids, like the boy across the way obsessed with Penthouse, go on a separate list. Then, as Christmas approaches and his humiliations mount, Harry snaps. He glues a beard to his face, dons a Santa suit, and sets off to give naughty and nice their just deserts.
What’s remarkable about Christmas Evil is that it’s ultimately on Harry’s side. He’s an insane murderer, but he isn’t necessarily wrong. When he kills some yuppie scum outside a New York cathedral—using toys, of course—it’s played as downright heroic. He becomes, in his own perverse way, an embodiment of the Christmas spirit. He delights sick kids by delivering toys to a hospital, then does away with the uncaring and the undeserving. That’s a sick—and in its own way, kind of wonderful—stance for a Christmas film to take, and Christmas Evil ends up running with the notion that pushing back against the corruption of Christmas might require a little bloodshed. (Several scenes are backed by cuts from Phil Spector’s great A Christmas Gift For You, which now gives them added creepiness.) Rather than just using a killer Santa for shock value, it has something to say.
Now, about that ending. (Anyone not wanting it spoiled should skip past the clip.) Harry, being chased by an angry crowd bearing torches, runs to the house of his brother Philip (future Walking Dead star Jeffrey DeMunn). They fight, and Philip, thinking he’s killed Harry, drags his brother’s body back to the Santa’s-sleigh-adorned van Harry was using to make his rounds. Behind the wheel, Harry revives, drives away, encounters the angry mob again, then drives over the side of a highway overpass. He doesn’t fall, however. The van just keeps flying away against the moonlit sky, as if God, Santa, or someone were giving Harry a big thumbs-up for what he just did. It’s a Christmas miracle… a horrible, warped Christmas miracle.
It’s probably little wonder that Christmas Evil has failed to become a beloved holiday classic, but John Waters embraced it, and it has picked up a little cult cachet over the last few years. Even so, it’s a tough to see anyone gathering the family ’round the fire to watch it. By that token, I’m kind of surprised more people don’t know the 1950 film The Great Rupert, the first live-action film produced by stop-motion-animation specialist George Pal, who spent the ’40s making the delightful Puppetoon shorts. It isn’t a great movie, but a) it’s unfailingly pleasant, and b) it stars Jimmy Durante and c) features a dancing squirrel. What more does a movie need to become a Christmas institution?
Durante plays Louie Amendola, the head of a family of vaudevillians who can no longer perform their trademark human-pyramid act now that their daughter (lovely Mighty Joe Young star Terry Moore) has grown too big for it. Hard up, they rent a sad one-room apartment previously inhabited by a fellow vaudeville pal Joe (Jimmy Conlin) who leaves the place in despair when a Broadway agent tells him his trained-squirrel act will go nowhere. Said squirrel is the eponymous Great Rupert; after Joe abandons him, Rupert finds he can’t hold his own against the squirrels of Central Park. So he returns home and begins living in a hole in the wall that empties out into the ceiling Amendola family’s apartment, a hole that happily doubles as a hiding place used by their tightfisted landlord. Perhaps because he senses his new roommates are in need, or maybe because he’s a squirrel and doesn’t know any better, Rupert starts tossing money from the hiding place down to the Amendolas just in time for them to enjoy the Christmas season in style.
It probably wouldn’t hurt The Great Rupert’s seasonal standing if it didn’t forget it was supposed to be a Christmas movie. Though it opens during the holidays, it ends months later, when everyone learns a lesson about the value of charity (sort of). As movies go, it’s pretty thin, using not-quite-enough plot to string together some Durante musical sequences and squirrel action. It’s enjoyable enough, but apart from Rupert, pretty forgettable. Rupert is simultaneously cute and creepy, which may not have helped its chances of immortality either. Pal is a stop-motion whiz, but the film’s habit of alternating shots of real squirrels with shots of a puppet who looks a bit too much like a real squirrel—who almost looks, in fact, like a squirrel carcass stretched over a wire frame—proves a bit jarring.
But maybe with a slight nudge, we would be living in a world where all these films did achieve classic status. Each year, families would gather to watch the definitive adaptation of Dickens’ classic. Ten minutes later, they would hang ornaments of the Great Rupert on the tree. Then, late at night, Christmas Evil would turn up on cable to send a gore-smeared Santa off into the night sky, just like it did every year. Would we need Ralphie and his BB gun or Zuzu’s petals if a dancing squirrel and a kill-happy Santa already held their places in our collective hearts?
In three weeks: The young Jeff Bridges.