Film & Television

It’s the Most Wonderful Television of the Year

My daughter is in her mid-twenties now. She’s what’s called a “digital native,” which means she never knew a world without mobile phones, email, texting, the Internet, or streaming video. I sometimes wonder if she even believes me when I describe how different my youth was.

Can she, for example, fathom what the holiday season was like without access to all that technology — and all those options?

Take, for example, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the 1964 stop-motion animated special produced by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass. It was my absolute favorite Christmas show and I looked forward to it for months. Every December, Rudolph would air on NBC (remember, there were only three major networks) one single time.

That’s right. One. Single. Time.

So, if your family happened to have a conflict — tickets to The Nutcracker, a holiday assembly at school, a youth choir recital at church — you were out of luck until the following year.

My daughter, on the other hand, had a copy of the aforementioned, crimson-conked caribou on VHS from the time she was two. This was soon replaced by a DVD, which gathered dust once Rudolph and so many other holiday titles became available on-demand. It’s still my favorite, and I have to believe that’s because of how special — and rare — watching it was back in the 60s and 70s.

So, with the season in full swing, I asked some friends (my contemporaries, “digital immigrants” rather than “natives”) to tell me about their favorite holiday titles. Many suggested more recent examples, like Last Holidaywith Queen Latifah, Holiday with Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with Beverly D’Angelo, Love Actually with, well, a cast of thousands — and there are certainly dozens of new Christmas movies produced every year — but most seemed to harken to a time when watching was a treasured once-a-season event.

Here are some TV submissions that will take you back …

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)

If you’ve never seen myopic Mr. Magoo take on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, you’ll be surprised by how entirely touching this cartoon version of the Dickens classic is. Have a hanky at the ready when Scrooge sings a duet with his boyhood self and wonders, “A hand for each hand was planned for the world, why don’t my fingers reach?” (Available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

According to my impromptu research, I’m not alone in my favorite choice. Rudolph clearly had something important to say to each of us. As one friend explained, “It’s about being different and not fitting in and ultimately a story about being true to yourself and fulfilling your potential just as you are!” In fact, more than one person admitted they could relate to the “island of misfit toys.” (Available to buy on Amazon Prime)

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Many praised Linus’s rendition of the nativity story from the Gospel of St. Luke. Or, as one friend summarized, “‘ . . . and that’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.’ Linus nailed it!” Lucy was noted for “her feminist muscles!” And, people fondly remember “the sorry tree that’s weighed down by its one decoration.” (Available on Apple TV+)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

The original animated version of the Dr. Seuss classic, with voiceover by Boris Karloff, came up on most lists, although one childhood friend shared that, “I did not at all understand how Christmas could come without presents.” Later live-action versions pale in comparison. (Available on Peacock Premium or to rent or buy from Amazon Prime)

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1970)

A survey participant gave this one “Two very BIG Thumbs Up!” She wrote that, “Every Christmas Eve, I have to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol. It’s among only a few ‘musical’ treatments of this perennial classic, with wonderful score by Paul Williams, masterful performance by Michael Caine, and the clever “Muppet” treatment of tongue-in-cheek dialogue.” (Available on Disney+)

Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970) and The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

I’ve always considered these Rudolph spinoffs, but friends reminded me of memorable voice performances (Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Booth) and characters like the Winter Warlock and Burgermeister Meisterburger, Snow Miser and Heat Miser. (Available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime)

And, if you prefer your classics feature-length, submissions included two standouts:

It’s a Wonderful Life (1947)

For many, this fantasy drama with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed is synonymous with Christmas. An old castmate of mine was quick to claim it, “Possibly because I’m one who has a tendency to be melancholy around the holidays and it’s a story of hope.” And, another friend described it as, “A very Jewish movie somehow.” (Available on Amazon Prime)

Miracle on 34th Street  (also 1947, apparently a very good year for Christmas)

Several female friends praised the movie’s “feminist bent.” Speaking of Maureen O’Hara’s mother Doris, one said, “She’s a professional woman raising her daughter alone. Yes, she falls for the guy, but she loves him, didn’t need him, which was huge for a movie in the 30s.” My own mother still insists that no one has ever made a better Santa Claus than Edmund Gwenn. (Available on Amazon Prime and Disney+)

Finally, a number of survey participants cited movies in which Christmas is conspicuously absent: The Wizard of Oz(1939, HBO Max), The Sound of Music (1965, Disney+), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968 HBO), and even Fiddler on the Roof (1971, rent or buy on Amazon). So, it seems a plot that revolves around a jolly old elf may not be required after all.

The best holiday entertainment has more to do with the people we enjoy it with.

 

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