Peter Hoskin

From the archives: Mark Steyn’s Christmas film selection

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To help that Christmas lunch go down, here's a sprinkling of Christmas films selected by the incomparable Mark Steyn in 2004. To see more of his writing for The Spectator click here. Otherwise, just read on... 

Christmas Classics, Mark Steyn, The Spectator, 18 December 2004

’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house/ Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

At which point, Sylvester the cat looks up from his long fruitless vigil outside the mouse hole in the baseboard and sighs with feeling to the narrator, ‘You’re not jutht whithlin’ Dickthie, brother.’

I saw Gift Wrapped after four hours of grim slogging through a couple of this year’s charmless Christmas movies. The western and the musical may be dead, but the charmless Xmas movie is now a genre all of its own and doing gangbusters. Do they teach it in film school yet? In fact, it’s really two genres: there are intentionally charmless Christmas movies like Bad Santa, and then the accidentally charmless ones, like that Ben Affleck flick where he’s some heartless yuppie who rents a bluecollar family for the holiday season to give him the authentic home-made Christmas he’s never known. The great American Christmas, the ne plus ultra of e pluribus unum, cooked up by Germans and Dutch, musicalised by Jews, appears on celluloid an utterly exhausted seam. My advice is skip ’em all and get a Looney Tunes DVD with Gift Wrapped on it, six minutes of pure pleasure in which Sylvester tries to land the only Christmas present he really wants — Tweety. The film opens with Granny slumbering upstairs and the impatient cat sneakily unwrapping his gift. It’s a rubber mouse and he’s not happy about it. ‘Why couldn’t I get thumthin’ practical?’ he complains. ‘Like a real mouse.’

Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett get most of the plaudits for Looney Tunes, but I love the relentlessness of Friz Freleng’s work. The classic is High-Diving Hare, in which Bugs Bunny keeps coming up with new ways to lure Yosemite Sam out on the diving board and over the edge. But the Tweety and Sylvester series demonstrates Freleng’s inexhaustible ability to ring inventive variations on a theme over the long haul. In Gift Wrapped, the formula’s pared to its essence: Sylvester uses the gifts under the tree — bow-and-arrow, train set, etc. — to ensnare Granny’s ‘darling little Tweety bird’. He lurks at the top of the stairs, lowers down the winch of the toy crane to lift Tweety’s cage but instead hooks Granny and by the time she’s yanked up to the landing she’s not happy about it. The moment when, dressed as Pocahontas, she fires the toilet plunger at Sylvester is especially memorable.

After the Looney Tunes golden age, Freleng did the distinctive titles sequence for Blake Edwards’s The Pink Panther, with the eponymous feline cavorting to Henry Mancini’s music. Peter Sellers stole the movie and made it into a personal franchise, the bottom of which barrel Edwards managed to scrape successfully for well over a decade after Sellers’s death, assembling lame sequel after lame sequel out of cutting-floor footage and grim extensions like Inspector Clouseau Jr, played by Roberto Benigni. But as the years go by I find myself returning to The Pink Panther for everything but Sellers: David Niven, Robert Wagner, Capucine, the Mancini music. It’s not a Christmas film but one scene has the whiff of eggnog about it, and is, I think, the best après-ski scene ever made. It starts with a horse-drawn sleigh pulling up at the lodge, and we cross inside to the revellers around the fire as the music begins and Edwards closes in on an attractively curvaceous black ski-panted bottom swaying to the Continental rhythms. The bottom — a classic jut-butt (as Bob Hope used to say of Doris Day) — belongs to Fran Jeffries and, as she turns, you appreciate that the rest of her’s not bad either. (She looks better in the movie than Claudia Cardinale, whom Edwards photographs rather harshly.) Miss Jeffries was one of those Sixties chicks who did a couple of movies and a couple of albums (Fran Can Hang You Up The Most is up there with A Whole Lalo Schiffrin Going On as one of my all-time favourite LP titles). But this is her shining hour, all three minutes of it, superbly staged by Hermes Pan (Fred Astaire’s choreographer) as she sings, in Italian, ‘Meglio Stasera’ and Niven, Wagner and the arhythmically grooving Sellers hang on her every word.

Back in the Sixties, almost every film had a song of some kind but few lavished the amount of attention Edwards does on this one: it wraps up an entire world and an era in one scene. Wherever I go on winter vacations, I always hope to find a ski-lodge where Fran Jeffries is singing ‘Meglio Stasera’. The closest I’ve come is a visit to her daughter’s restaurant in Los Angeles. (Not sure whether she still owns it, but it’s the restaurant you see in Julia Roberts’s Pretty Woman.)

The other great Sixties ski-lodge belongs to Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where Bond is operating under cover as the bekilted Sir Hilary Bray from the Royal College of Arms. Among the covers he’s operating under are those of the young ladies of the establishment. They’re not as exotic totty as we’re used to in Bond films — Ruby Bartlett from Morecambe Bay (played by Angela Scoular) is the most persistent — but George Lazenby’s 007 does his best to give satisfaction. At the pre-Christmas party, you’ll see an entire cavalcade of swingin’ London dollies — Anouska Hempel, Julie Ege, Jenny Hanley, Joanna Lumley. Roger Moore’s ski-slope chases are more famous, but Lazenby’s attempt to outrun Blofeld’s men crackles with real tension.

For less glamorous Yuletide escapades, you can’t beat the silents. The great theme of Hollywood’s early Christmas movies is the seasonal burglary, sometimes perpetrated by ne’er-do-wells, sometimes merely by desperate societal victims too poor to spend Christmas. The best of these is D.W. Griffith’s gloomy A Trap For Santa (1909), in which a wife and children abandoned by the unemployed alcoholic man of the house are eventually reunited when she comes into the money and he attempts to burgle the joint on Christmas Eve.

But, if you put aside the dimestore Dickens, a lot of the early films could, at least in synopsis, easily pass for high-concept Ben Affleck projects. Santa Claus vs Cupid (1915) sounded great when I read the summary: girl has two beaus, Beck and Norwood; she seems to prefer Beck, so Norwood hatches a plan to substitute for the other fellow as Santa at the Christmas party. That sounds a great premise: two suitors, with two Santa suits; complications ensue. But in practice it all gets bogged down in a plot about a coachman with a sick wife who burgles all the toys. The time is ripe for a Santa Claus vs Cupid remake that does justice to the title.