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Christmas Movies: The Good, the Bad & the Weird - From Bette Davis & Gary Cooper to Santa Claus & Serial Killers

Christmas movies: Black Christmas Olivia Hussey in gialli-inspired slasher cult classicChristmas movies on TCM: Black Christmas with Olivia Hussey. As can be attested by both the image above and the gory goings-on at its sorority house setting, perhaps “Red Christmas” would have been a more appropriate title for Bob Clark's 1974 slasher cult classic Black Christmas. The Buenos Aires-born Olivia Hussey never quite became a major film star, but she did manage to get prominent roles in several of the best-known productions of her time: Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, one of the cruise passengers in John Guillermin's Death on the Nile, and the Virgin Mary in Zeffirelli's made-for-TV hit Jesus of Nazareth – not to mention the young/old Maria in Charles Jarrott's notorious Lost Horizon musical remake.

Christmas movies on TCM: The good, the bad & the weird

'Tis the season to enjoy Christmas movies. Luckily, Turner Classic Movies is bringing lots of good tidings this late December 2010.

But before we proceed, let's leave aside the following:

Why? Well, it's now (evening of Dec. 17) too late to catch TCM's presentation of these three Christmas movies of 1949. So instead, let's look forward to what's in store tonight and in the coming days.

Eclectic offerings

TCM's 2010 “Christmas Movies” – the phrase is being used loosely here – feature a wide array of genres, topics, and settings. For instance:

  • An eerie horror thriller about a deranged holiday season murderer.
  • A 1950s-set 1970s musical about what women must go through to please their swishingly macho men.
  • A Civil War-set American drama pitting religious devotion vs. the “A Man's Gotta Do What a Man's Gotta Do” motto.
  • A Netherworld-set French drama pitting, quite literally, Love vs. Death.
  • And even a (silent era) depiction of the life of Jesus Christ.

So, let's begin with tonight's festive Black Christmas.

Nightmare-inducing Christmas movies: 'Black Christmas' & 'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians'

Those more sensitive p.c. souls among us may find Black Christmas a racist (horror) movie title, but it's actually merely the opposite of White Christmas – both the Danny Kaye-Bing Crosby 1954 blockbuster and that old phrase meaning a snowy Dec. 25.

A cult horror classic clearly inspired by Italian gialli (e.g., The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, Slaughter Hotel), Bob Clark's 1974 Canadian slasher thriller – also known as Silent Night, Evil Night – focuses on a psychopath hiding in the attic of a sorority house. Creepy phone calls and bloodied corpses ensue in (relatively) quick succession.

Who do you think is the mysterious killer? And just as puzzling, why wasn't there a sequel? That is, unless you consider Halloween and Friday the 13th as unofficial Black Christmas follow-ups.

'Black Christmas' cast & pre-'Porky's' Bob Clark

Black Christmas stars Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet), Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey), and Margot Kidder (Superman).

Also in the cast: 1950s teen idol John Saxon (The Reluctant Debutante, The Restless Years) and future SCTV Network 90 comedienne Andrea Martin.

Roy Moore – no connection to Alabama's far-right, former Chief Justice – was credited for the Black Christmas screenplay. As for Bob Clark, he's best known for the lowbrow blockbuster comedy Porky's and the Jack Lemmon-Robby Benson father-son drama Tribute.

Glen Morgan's less influential 2006 Black Christmas remake features Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Lacey Chabert, and the original's Andrea Martin. Bob Clark, who died the following year at age 67, was one of its executive producers.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: Inspirational children's fantasy 1 of Worst Movies EverSanta Claus Conquers the Martians with John Call as the rotund, white-bearded, ho-ho-hoing conqueror: One of TCM's “Christmas Movies,” this inspirational children's fantasy/sci-fier has a special place in film history as one of the Worst Movies Ever Made. The plot centers on a group of Martians who kidnap Santa Claus so he can present bagfuls of cheerfulness to their local green brats. It's unclear why exactly they think Santa will succeed on Mars when he has been such a dismal failure on his native Earth.

One of the worst movies ever made?

If you think Black Christmas sounds scary, you should check out Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964).

Labeled one of the worst Christmas Movies – or rather, one of the worst movies – ever made, Nicholas Webster's Santa Claus Conquers the Martians tells the story of a bunch of concerned Red Planet denizens who kidnap North Pole's Santa so he can bring joy and happiness to little green Martian children, among them future controversial Golden Globe winner Pia Zadora*.

But why Santa Claus and not fellow 1964 movie icons Mary Poppins, Dr. Strangelove, and Zorba the Greek? Well, you'll have to watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians to find out.

While at it, see if you can figure out why adult Martians are seen garbed in X-ratedly tight-fitting green costumes in a movie aimed at little whippersnappers.

Also, make sure to watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians until the very end so you won't miss the heartwarming “Hooray for Santy Claus” sing-along finale.

* At the 1982 Golden Globes, Pia Zadora was named New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture for her work in Matt Cimber's Butterfly, which opened about a week after the ceremony.

Bette Davis for Christmas: 'Mr. Skeffington'

As we all know, no must-see Christmas Movies list would be complete without at least one Bette Davis star vehicle. So it's a good thing that TCM will be airing Vincent Sherman's 1944 drama Mr. Skeffington, starring Best Actress Oscar nominee Davis and Best Supporting Actor nominee Claude Rains.

Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein's screenplay – from a story by Elizabeth von Arnim – features Davis at her best as a psychotically vain young beauty who learns a lesson or two about humility and the dangers of paying too much attention to skin-deep stuff. Rains, for his part, is flawless as her selfless husband, who also happens to be the title character.

Despite its mean-spirited moralism – Davis' character, as to be expected, is made to suffer horribly – Mr. Skeffington remains one of the most satisfactory products of the studio era thanks to its two brilliant central performances and Warner Bros.' superb team of artists/craftspeople, including cinematographer Ernest Haller, film editor Ralph Dawson, composer Franz Waxman, art director Robert M. Haas, and costume designer Orry-Kelly.

For the record, Davis lost the Oscar to Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. Rains lost to Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way.

Christmas Movies: Bette Davis Mr. Skeffington from youthful beauty to old hagChristmas Movies on TCM: Bette Davis goes from youthful beauty to decrepit hag in Mr. Skeffington, one of her best films and featuring one of her best performances. Just as excellent is Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Claude Rains in the title role; Davis plays the missus, Fanny Trellis Skeffington. Believe it or not, when the 1944 Academy Awards were announced in early 1945, the Oscars had been around for only 17 years – and Bette Davis had been officially nominated no less than seven times. And let's not forget that she was an unofficial Best Actress contender at the 1935 ceremony for her star-making turn in John Cromwell's Of Human Bondage.

TCM Christmas Movies on Dec. 17: Psychopaths & psychotics

11:00 p.m. Black Christmas (1974). Cast: Keir Dullea. Margot Kidder. Olivia Hussey. John Saxon. Marian Waldman. Andrea Martin. James Edmond. Doug McGrath (as Douglas McGrath). Art Hindle. Lynne Griffin. Uncredited: Nick Mancuso. Dir.: Bob Clark. Color. 98 mins.

12:45 p.m. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). Cast: John Call. Leonard Hicks. Vincent Beck. Pia Zadora. Dir.: Nicholas Webster. Color. 86 mins.

3:00 a.m. Mr. Skeffington (1944). Cast: Bette Davis. Claude Rains. Walter Abel. George Coulouris. Richard Waring. Marjorie Riordan. Dir.: Vincent Sherman. B&W. 146 mins.

For the record, here are the main cast members of the aforementioned 1949 Christmas movies shown earlier on TCM:

In the Good Old Summertime. Cast: Judy Garland. Van Johnson. Spring Byington. S.Z. Sakall. Buster Keaton. Uncredited: Three-year-old Liza Minnelli.

Little Women. Cast: June Allyson. Rossano Brazzi. Peter Lawford. Elizabeth Taylor. Janet Leigh. Margaret O'Brien. Mary Astor. Lucile Watson.

Holiday Affair. Cast: Janet Leigh. Robert Mitchum. Wendell Corey. Gordon Gebert. Esther Dale. Harry Morgan. Henry O'Neill.

Meet John Doe Gary Cooper Barbara Stanwyck: Christmas movies about love and deathMeet John Doe with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. In director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin's first post-Columbia Pictures collaboration, the 1941 comedy-drama Meet John Doe, a newspaper columnist (Barbara Stanwyck) about to lose her job pens a column centered on a (fictitious) “John Doe” bent on committing suicide on Christmas Eve as protest against the social evils of the world. The usual morons everywhere buy into her story, which gives her an idea: what if she could come up with an actual John Doe? What if he looked just like Gary Cooper? And what if love was the solution to everything? Meet John Doe is one of TCM's Christmas Movies.

Gary Cooper Christmas movies

Gary Cooper is TCM's Star of the Evening on Dec. 18. Cooper's Christmas movies are Meet John Doe, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Along Came Jones, Task Force, and Friendly Persuasion.

Frank Capra's first post-Columbia Pictures effort, the populist Meet John Doe (1941) can never quite decide where it stands socially and politically. Its simple-minded socially conscious motto is “Be a Good Neighbor,” while “The People” are both revered (for their intrinsic goodness) and, however implicitly, derided (for their intrinsic imbecility).

In all, the muddled, heavy-handed dramatic comedy is made watchable by its two central performances: Cooper's, as the titular homeless man, and, especially, Barbara Stanwyck's, as an unscrupulous newspaper columnist redeemed by love.

Richard Connell and Robert Presnell Sr. received an Academy Award nomination in the now defunct Best Original Story category. Frequent Capra collaborator Robert Riskin (American Madness, Lady for a Day, It Happened One Night) was credited for the screenplay, with some uncredited rewriting by Myles Connolly (Capra's collaborator on State of the Union and Here Comes the Groom).

Unfortunately, TCM has been showing what looks like mediocre public domain prints of Meet John Doe. It's unclear why they haven't taken the trouble to air the UCLA restoration.

'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town'

A major critical and commercial hit, Best Director Oscar winner Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) could have been just as messy as Meet John Doe, but the characters in this one come to life in a more credible manner.

Perhaps that's because Capra and the Oscar-nominated Robert Riskin opted not to take their socially conscious romantic comedy-drama too seriously. Not to mention the fact that the whole premise and just about every character in the film is utterly absurd.

Pert Jean Arthur – Columbia's top star player of the late 1930s/early 1940s and a replacement for first-choice Carole Lombard – co-stars as a city slicker who falls for Cooper's tuba-playing hick-turned-millionaire. For better or for worse, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town helped to cement his aw-shucksy screen image, along the way earning him the first of his five Best Actor Academy Award nominations.

For the record, Cooper lost the Oscar to Paul Muni for William Dieterle's The Story of Louis Pasteur.

More Gary Cooper Christmas movies: Cowboys & military men

Stuart Heisler's Along Came Jones (1945) is a so-so comic Western of interest solely because of leads Gary Cooper and Loretta Young – both by then veterans with nearly two decades in the film business.

The story of a mild-mannered cowboy (Cooper) mistaken for a rough-mannered outlaw (Dan Duryea), Along Came Jones has more than a little in common with Elliot Silverstein's Cat Ballou (1965), which starred Jane Fonda and good cowboy/bad cowboy Lee Marvin.

Screenwriter-director Delmer Daves' flag-waving Task Force (1949) showcases Cooper, garbed in full military regalia, as a handsome, virtuous, determined, upstanding, courageous, honorable, principled, righteous, and very tall U.S. naval aviator.

Jane Wyatt, later of TV's Father Knows Best fame (and the leading lady in Frank Capra's Lost Horizon) plays the aviator's meticulously coiffed, dressed, and made-up civilian wife.

“Christmas Movies: The Good, the Bad & the Weird – From Bette Davis & Gary Cooper to Santa Claus & Serial Killers” follow-up post: “Friendly Persuasion & Michael Wilson: Blacklisted Oscar Nominee Screenwriting Credit Controversy.”

 

Turner Classic Movies' “Christmas Movies” schedule via the TCM website.

TCM Christmas movies' cast info via the IMDb.

Olivia Hussey Black Christmas image: Warner Bros.

Image of John Call in one of the most infamous Christmas movies ever made, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: Embassy Pictures.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck Meet John Doe image: Warner Bros.

         
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