Friday, December 16, 2005

Christmas Lurks Without

So the Siren has had a grumpy week. Toddlers with cabin fever and a whacking huge snowstorm have combined to make her far from her usual soignée and carefree self. Over the horizon looms Christmas. Seen from nine days away, sometimes Christmas seems joyous and glittering, like the winter ball in Doctor Zhivago. At other times it seems that, like the Czar's soldiers amassing outside the Moscow mansions, Christmas is waiting for a chance to trample me.

Christmas at the movies is usually a jolly affair. Deck them halls and all that stuff, ho-ho-ho and misteltoe and presents to pretty girls. Even if a Christmas scene starts out sad, few filmmakers can resist the urge to make it uplifting at the end. The Siren has been trying to compile a list of movies that manage to show the dark side of Christmas. Here is what she has so far.

1. Citizen Kane. The boy Kane throws the sled, Rosebud, at Walter Thatcher, the guardian who has come to take him away. Maybe the scene takes place on Christmas, maybe it doesn't; the Siren always believed it took place a day or two after Christmas, and that Rosebud was young Kane's favorite present. The next scene shows Kane unwrapping a replacement sled, and obviously hating it. Flash forward to another Christmas--and Thatcher wishing the now-adult Kane "a happy New Year." The whole sequence is achingly sad, and builds sympathy for Kane by showing his loneliness and isolation. And at least a kernel of that feeling stays throughout the movie, even as Kane becomes less and less loveable. Like no other, this film nails how disappointing and hollow Christmas can be--yet another reason to admire Citizen Kane, if any of us needed one.

2. Stalingrad. The title may be description enough, but the scene the Siren has in mind is a moment of quiet in this bloody, chaotic movie. Having taken a gutted factory with fearful loss of life, a group of German soldiers takes a break from fighting. They huddle around the radio, listening to the Fuhrer's Christmas speech. Hearing Hitler address his nation in an ordinary, conversational tone is almost shocking. Usually when you hear recordings of the man, he is shrieking at the top of his lungs and working his audience into a frenzy. Here, the exhausted soldiers listen to the radio with expressions ranging from numbed apathy to bitter disbelief.

2. Meet Me in St. Louis. Every doggone Christmas-song-video-clip-anthology in creation shows the scene from this movie where Judy Garland, looking more beautiful than she ever had or ever would again, sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to a tearstained Margaret O'Brien. When it's sandwiched between Bing's duet with David Bowie and a clip of Bruce Springsteen singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," you can forget how depressing the scene is. And that is even after song was altered before filming to make it a little less misery-inducing. The original lyrics began, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last ..." Break out the eggnog.

At this point in the plot, the Smith family is about to leave their beloved Saint Louis for (horrors!) New York. O'Brien, playing the child Tootie, listens to Judy's song looking as though someone just killed her dog. In fact, Vincente Minnelli, at the behest of the child's mother, had just told her a story about her dog getting shot, bleeding, stumbling around and then dying in order to get a properly devastated expression. (In his autobiography he said he felt like a monster, but added by way of justification that he got the scene in one take.) Everyone talks about the pathos of Judy's singing, but do you remember how well it goes down with Tootie? The kid is so cheered up that she runs out and beheads all the family snowmen. Sure, then the father notices Tootie is having a nervous breakdown and decides to let the family stay in St. Louis, but the scene usually requires a stiff drink and a great deal of Kleenex for the Siren to make it through.

I'm leaving out It's a Wonderful Life because I am on Wonderful Life hiatus, in hopes I will one day be able to watch it without remembering all the stupid commercials it's spawned. Besides, I am not sure it counts. Certainly there is some dark stuff, in the "life without George" sequence, but it's all just an illusion. The real world, according to Frank Capra, is the one where everybody shows up at your house and showers you with money. No wonder the man's films remain so popular.

So, what scenes am I forgetting? There must be others. What other films try to bury Christmas with a stake of holly through its heart? Preference is given to films where the absent father/Santa Claus/milk train/transformed Scrooge does not show up to make it all better.


Uncle Gustav said...

When I was living in San Francisco, The Strand theatre on Market Street was one of the best revival theatres in the country. Each day a new double or triple feature, four and sometimes five films on Sundays.

On one Christmas day (1978? 1979?) they paired "Cabaret" with "The Tenant" -- corresponding with the manic depressive in us all.

The first time I saw "Citizen Kane" was on New Years Eve (1971 into 1972) when I was 14-years-old. Everyone else gone to a party that night, I was left alone to my own devices. Despite my age and inexperience, I was stunned by the movie. And as I recall, the station showing it, New York's WOR, limited the commercial interruptions and ran the picture intact.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Well I already weighed in on my site. What I think is odd is that there is a frequency of Christmas themed movies that use to not exist. This year we have Just Friends, The Ice Harvest and The Family Stone. Last year there was Christmas with the Kranks and Surviving Christmas. Back when I actually went to a movie theater on Christmas Day, the best film I saw was a lovely print of The Adventures of Robin Hood at the New Yorker Theater.

Exiled in NJ said...

Was there ever more forced gaiety than at the Christmas party in Anarene in 1951? Desperate people looking for hope, for love, for anything to hold onto. Saddest is the story of Duane's gift to Jacy, a watch, ending up ruined by her dive into the pool.

70's films could employ Hackman, dressed as Santa on a corner in Brooklyn, then shedding hat and beard to chase a drug dealer.

Christmas seems to provide writers and directors the chance to cop out and give the people what they want: happy endings no matter what went before, like The Ref.

Annieytown said...

My favorite Xmas scene is in Auntie Mame.
I still weep when Ito and Norah pay for her bills.

Exiled in NJ said...

How could I forget Nick and Nora's Christmas in The Thin Man?

Brian Darr said...

If I recall, the Christmas angle in Meet John Doe is a bit darker than that in It's a Wonderful Life, but still ends up going for "inspirational" at the last moment. Remember the Night is another cynic's look at Christmas (again with Stanwyck) where you need to press the "eject" button before things get too cheery (unless you don't mind cheery after all).

Sorry I'm not coming up with examples where the entire film might please Grinch-types who like to remember that mistletoe is a parasite and that holly berries and poinsettias are poisonous. But my very favorite bitter X-Mas scene is the scene in All That Heaven Allows when Jane Wyman recieves her childrens' gift.

girish said...

Great call, Brian.
The Sirk scene is one of my all-time faves. Unbeatable.

surly hack said...

In the Kay Francis post I mention In Name Only, also starring Cary Grant and Carole Lombard. It concludes with a particularly nasty Christmas eve and day. Francis tries to use Christmas to save her loveless marriage to Grant, and Lombard is lewdly propositioned by a hotel manager. And Grant spends Christmas eve at a bar with another equally unhappily married and drunk man NOT wishing each other "merry Christmas".