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Christmas Movies: The Good, the Bad & the Worst

Christmas Movies: The King of Kings with H.B. Warner as Jesus Christ has  been a holiday season favoriteChristmas Movies: Starring stage and film veteran H.B. Warner as Jesus Christ, The King of Kings has been a holiday season favorite since its release in, ahem, spring (Easter) 1927. Warner is seen here with Ernest Torrence as Peter, Micky Moore as Mark, and Joseph Striker as John, the Beloved.

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

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

But first of all, let's forget about the following:

  • Robert Z. Leonard's In the Good Old Summertime.
  • Mervyn LeRoy's Little Women.
  • Don Hartman's Holiday Affair.

It's now (evening of Dec. 17) too late to catch TCM's presentation of these three Christmas movies of 1949. Instead, let's look forward to what's in store in the coming days.

“Christmas Movies” – the phrase is being used loosely here – suggestions range from a festive horror thriller revolving around a deranged holiday season murderer to a 1950s-set 1970s musical about what women must go through to please their swishingly macho men. From a Civil War-set American drama pitting the A Man's Gotta Do What a Man's Gotta Do motto vs. religious devotion to a Netherworld-set French drama pitting, quite literally, Love vs. Death.

The nightmare after watching Christmas movies

Those more sensitive p.c. souls may find Black Christmas' title racist, 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, Bob Clark's 1974 slasher thriller – also known as Silent Night, Evil Night – features a psychopath hiding in the attic of a sorority house. Creepy phone calls and bloodied corpses ensue in (relatively) quick succession.

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 was credited for the 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.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: inspirational children's fantasy one of Worst Movies Ever MadeSanta 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.

'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians'

In Nicholas Webster's Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), which some consider one of the worst Christmas Movies – or rather, one of the worst movies – ever made, Martians kidnap Santa Claus so he can bring joy and happiness to little Martian children, among them Pia Zadora.

But why Santa Claus and not fellow 1964 movie icons Mary Poppins or Dr. Strangelove? 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 wear those X-ratedly tight-fitting green costumes.

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.

'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 focusing too much on 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 in Mr. Skeffington goes from youthful beauty to old hag in 1 of best filmsChristmas Movies on TCM: Bette Davis goes from youthful beauty to old hag in Mr. Skeffington, one of her best films and featuring one of her best performances.

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. 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. 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.

Gary Cooper Christmas movies

Gary Cooper is Turner Classic Movies' Star of the Evening on Dec. 18. Cooper's Christmas movies are the following:

  • Frank Capra's muddled Meet John Doe (1941), which can never quite decide where it stands socially and politically. The movie is made watchable thanks to Cooper's and, especially, Barbara Stanwyck's performances.
  • Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) could've been just as messy as Meet John Doe, but perhaps because Robert Riskin was responsible for the screenplay, the characters in this one come to life in a more believable manner. The always enjoyable Jean Arthur co-stars.
  • Stuart Heisler's Along Came Jones is a so-so comic Western made watchable because of leads Gary Cooper and Loretta Young. 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.
  • Task Force (1949) showcases Cooper in full military regalia. Jane Wyatt, later of TV's Father Knows Best fame, plays his meticulously coiffed, dressed, and made-up civilian wife.
Friendly Persuasion movie trailer with Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, and Anthony Perkins. One of TCM's “Christmas Movies,” this period family drama about Quakers and their religious convictions vs. the worldly concepts of duty & manliness won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

'Friendly Persuasion'

William Wyler's Oscar-nominated Friendly Persuasion is definitely worth a look despite one crucial shortcoming: the film fools around with key elements found in author Jessamyn West's 1945 collection of short stories, The Friendly Persuasion (chiefly in “The Battle of Finney's Ford”), to create the usual crowd-pleasing Hollywood drama.

Set in 1862, Friendly Persuasion features youthful Indiana Quaker Anthony Perkins going to battle – to become a Real Man – despite the vehement protests of his mother (Dorothy McGuire). Will the young Quaker be able to kill another man? And will his father (Gary Cooper) join him?

Film critic Pauline Kael would later write that in Wyler's movie – much like in Fred Zinnemann's High Noon* – the Quakers “are there only to violate their convictions.” Even so, Cooper and McGuire deliver capable performances as the pacifist parents who strive to remain true to their religious convictions.

The movie no one wrote

Aside from its artistic qualities, Friendly Persuasion is also notable for its place in Hollywood political history.

At first, Michael Wilson (A Place in the Sun, The Bridge on the River Kwai) was hired to write the adaptation of Jessamyn West's book for Frank Capra, whose Liberty Films had purchased the movie rights. By the early 1950s, however, Wilson had been blacklisted; Capra also dropped out of the picture.

William Wyler stepped in as director while his brother, Robert Wyler, and others, worked on Wilson's adaptation. Writers Guild litigation ensued.

Ultimately, unlike most Christmas movies, there was no happy ending: Friendly Persuasion was released without a screenwriting credit. And although the writer-less screenplay would be shortlisted for an Academy Award, Wilson's name was nowhere to be found on the ballot.

Also of interest: Friendly Persuasion won the Palme d'Or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. Capra had initially considered Bing Crosby and Jean Arthur for the leads; Wyler had wanted Katharine Hepburn.

* Grace Kelly is small-town sheriff Gary Cooper's young Quaker wife in High Noon. She plays a key role at the film's climax.

TCM Christmas Movies on Dec. 18: Gary Cooper day

5:00 p.m. Meet John Doe (1941). Cast: Gary Cooper. Barbara Stanwyck. Edward Arnold. Walter Brennan. Dir.: Frank Capra. B&W. 122 mins.

7:15 p.m. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). Cast: Gary Cooper. Jean Arthur. George Bancroft. Lionel Stander. Dir.: Frank Capra. B&W. 116 mins.

9:15 p.m. Friendly Persuasion (1956). Cast: Gary Cooper. Dorothy McGuire. Marjorie Main. Anthony Perkins. Dir.: William Wyler. B&W. 138 mins.

11:45 p.m. Along Came Jones (1945). Cast: Gary Cooper. Loretta Young. William Demarest. Dan Duryea. Dir.: Stuart Heisler. B&W. 90 mins.

1:30 a.m. Task Force (1949). Cast: Gary Cooper. Jane Wyatt. Wayne Morris. Walter Brennan. Dir.: Delmer Daves. Color. 117 mins.

Grease with John Travolta Olivia Newton-John: uninspired songs and dance numbers = box office hitGrease with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John: One of TCM's “Christmas movies,” this Randal Kleiser-directed 1950s-set musical featuring mostly uninspired songs and dance numbers was a gigantic box office hit.

More TCM Christmas movies: 'Grease' & the ass-shaking macho gang member

Inexplicably, I've always gotten Irvin Kershner and Randal Kleiser confused. Well, at least they do have one thing in common: Kershner directed the sci-fi adventure The Empire Strikes Back (1980) while Kleiser directed the romantic musical Grease (1978) – released two years apart, both were major teen-oriented box office hits. The latter is one of TCM's Dec. 19 Christmas movies.

Set in 1958, Grease stars 24-year-old John Travolta – fresh off of the disco-boogying blockbuster Saturday Night Fever – as a leather-jacketed, brilliantine-haired, high-school gang member trying to maintain his tough dude image while romancing wide-eyed, pony-tailed, 30-year-old Australian high-schooler Olivia Newton-John, who undergoes a thorough makeover so her macho object of desire will go down on his knees, bare his arms, and shake his ass for her.

Although Travolta displays a daring mix of masculine and feminine energy that would have made Elvis the Pelvis blush, the more low-key Newton-John is the one who effortlessly steals most of the romantic and musical sequences.

Unfortunately, Randal Kleiser's hit couldn't have been more artificial and infantile. Compounding matters, not even George Chakiris and Rita Moreno could have saved the film's lame dance numbers.

All in all, Grease will likely give you more nightmares than Black Christmas.

A Summer Place with Sandra Dee: No Christmas Movies list would be complete without 1959 blockbusterA Summer Place: No Christmas Movies list would be complete without Delmer Daves' 1959 blockbuster featuring Sandra Dee getting whacked, falling to the floor with the family's Christmas tree on top of her, and wishing Mom Constance Ford an embittered Merry Christmas.

'A Summer Place': They don't make Christmas movies like they used to

Unlike Grease, A Summer Place is a 1950s-set movie that was actually made in the 1950s, a time when sweet, pony-tailed girls sucked on lollipops and tough, pompadour-haired guys drank root beer floats. It was a more innocent era, as can be attested by writer-director Delmer Daves' 1959 romantic drama based on Sloan Wilson's novel set in a Maine resort town.

So, get ready for some good old-fashioned Christmas cheer as A Summer Place showcases alcohol addiction, social hypocrisy, class prejudice, marital infidelity†, and teen pregnancy, as it follows in the footsteps of other small-town/suburbia-set, family-friendly 1940s/1950s fare like Kings Row, In This Our Life, Peyton Place, and No Down Payment.

But how could a movie with “summer” in the title be considered a Christmas film? Well, in one scene – that can never be unseen – pissed off Mom Constance Ford gives daughter Sandra Dee a whack that sends the poor teen crashing down along with the family's Christmas tree.

All that and more to the tune of a melodious score by veteran Max Steiner (Now Voyager, Casablanca).

And that's why one can state with confidence that they really don't make Christmas movies like they used to.

Adultery & teen sex sell

A Summer Place was a sizable hit when it came out in 1959, helping to turn Sandra Dee, however briefly, into a top box office draw. Domestic rentals totaled $4.7 million – or about $73 million in 2010 dollars, which means that North American grosses may well have hovered around $140–150 million.

Besides Dee and Constance Ford, A Summer Place features a prestigious cast that includes Dorothy McGuire, Richard Egan, Arthur Kennedy, Beulah Bondi, and – as Dee's forbidden paramour – Troy Donahue at his shirtless beefiest.

'Their Own Desire' connection

† Curiously, A Summer Place has several key elements in common with E. Mason Hopper's 1929 potboiler Their Own Desire (1929), adapted by Frances Marion and James Forbes (dialogue) from Sarita Fuller's novel.

In both movies, an adulterous relationship involving an older couple (Dorothy McGuire and Richard Egan in A Summer Place / Lewis Stone and Helene Millard in Their Own Desire) is mirrored in an affair between their children (Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue / Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery).

Besides, both A Summer Place and Their Own Desire feature a capsized boat that leaves the two young lovers stranded on an island for a while.

Biblical Christmas movies

Following all that sociocultural angst, TCM with provide viewers with direct divine intervention by way of Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings, a silent movie about the life of Jesus Christ. In fact, DeMille's biblical drama, notable for having opened Grauman's Chinese Theatre in May 1927, will offer you so much comfort that there's a good chance you'll fall asleep during the proceedings.

Truth be told, tedious is the word for the reverential The King of Kings. Bear in mind that DeMille took his work on the film so damned seriously that he had his second unit director Frank Urson (The Road to Yesterday, The Volga Boatman) named the official director of the saucy Chicago, which DeMille himself handled that same year.

H.B. Warner, whose Jesus is an embarrassingly uncharismatic savior, did much more empathetic work elsewhere; Warner, for instance, is brilliant in Herbert Brenon's 1928 silent drama Sorrell and Son.

On the positive side, Jacqueline Logan is an awful pretty Mary Magdalene, while future Academy Award winner and master scenery-chewer Joseph Schildkraut (Best Supporting Actor for The Life of Emile Zola, 1937) brings to emotive life the traitor Judas.

Morality lesson for the ages

Moral of the Story: Cecil B. DeMille should have avoided the New Testament altogether, unless, of course, he were to focus on Mary Magdalene and her titillating temptations. After all, the Old Testament was never more salaciously illuminating than in the director's Samson and Delilah and his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments.

Up-and-coming televangelists and god-invoking politicians should take careful note of DeMille's image-conscious phoniness, as he and his Biblical flicks were to remain enormously popular for decades.

Christmas Movies: Orpheus with Jean Marais as poet who falls in love with Death. Problem: it is reciprocalChristmas Movies for the poetically inclined: Orpheus stars Jean Marais as a Parisian poet who falls in love with Death (Maria Casarès). The problem for all involved is: it is reciprocal.

'Orpheus': A matter of love and Death

Jean Cocteau's entrancing, visually arresting Orpheus / Orphée (1950) stars Jean Marais in the title role – a Parisian poet who falls in love with Death. If that weren't all, Death also falls in love with the handsome poet. Tragedy ensues.

Marais and, in a small role, Cocteau's protégé Edouard Dhermitte are great to look at, and so is Marie Déa as Eurydice. Yet Orpheus truly belongs to Maria Casarès, whose doomed, lovestruck Death remains one of the greatest, most memorable portrayals in film history.

Last of TCM's Christmas movies: 'A Matter of Life and Death'

This article on TCM's Christmas movies comes to a close with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's British-made A Matter of Life and Death / Stairway to Heaven (1946). Even though this World War II fantasy should have been a good 20 minutes shorter, there is much to recommend about it; like Orpheus, it deals with life, love, and death – albeit in a less somber, less ethereal manner.

That's possibly because another key topic in this Powell and Pressburger collaboration is the mundane matter of flag-waving, which, inevitably, is handled with the subtlety of an elephant stampede. At one point, celestial barristers Raymond Massey and Roger Livesey, hardly the most understated of actors, take it upon themselves to engage in an endless debate about the heavenly ordained relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States – two nations that had fought three wars against each other in the preceding two centuries.†

Besides the verbose Massey and Livesey, A Matter of Life and Death features David Niven, the lovely Kim Hunter, and, as a fey heavenly Conductor, a surprisingly effective Marius Goring.

† An earlier version of this “Christmas Movies” post placed the blame for the overlong, overly preachy celestial trial – about whether David Niven's heroic British pilot should live or die – squarely on Raymond Massey's shoulder. In all fairness, Roger Livesey is equally to blame, along with the Powell & Pressburger directing/screenwriting duo.

TCM Christmas Movies on Dec. 19: From Sandra Dee to Cecil B. DeMille

5:00 p.m. Grease (1978). Cast: John Travolta. Olivia Newton-John. Stockard Channing. Jeff Conaway. Didi Conn. Frankie Avalon. Dir.: Randal Kleiser. Color. 110 mins.

7:00 p.m. A Summer Place (1959). Cast: Richard Egan. Dorothy McGuire. Sandra Dee. Troy Donahue. Arthur Kennedy. Constance Ford. Beulah Bondi. Dir.: Delmer Daves. Color. 130 mins.

9:15 p.m. The King of Kings (1927). Cast: H.B. Warner. Dorothy Cumming. Ernest Torrence. Joseph Schildkraut. Jacqueline Logan. Dir.: Cecil B. DeMille. B&W. 157 mins.

12:00 a.m. Orpheus / Orphée (1949). Cast: Jean Marais. Marie Déa. Maria Casarès. Edouard Dermithe (a.k.a. Édouard Dermit & Edouard Dhermitte). François Périer. Dir.: Jean Cocteau. B&W. 95 mins.

1:45 a.m. A Matter of Life and Death / Stairway to Heaven (1946). Cast: David Niven. Kim Hunter. Roger Livesey. Raymond Massey. Marius Goring. Robert Coote. Kathleen Byron. Dir.: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. Color. 104 mins.

More Christmas movies

Below are a few other Alt Film Guide articles about Christmas Movies for all occasions.


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

Friendly Persuasion trailer with Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, and Anthony Perkins: Allied Artists.

Image of Micky Moore, Ernest Torrence, Joseph Stiker, and H.B. Warner in one of Hollywood's perennial Christmas movies, Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings: DeMille Pictures / Pathé.

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta Grease image: Paramount Pictures.

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

Jean Marais Orpheus image: DisCina.

Constance Ford and Sandra Dee A Summer Place “Christmas Movies to Remember” image: Warner Bros., via Pinterest.

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