Paul Whitington weighs up the ingredients that go into creating the perfect Christmas movie
In recent years, critics have bemoaned the fact that no one makes Christmas movies any more, by which they mean the warm and fuzzy sentimental ones we all watch on television. They have a point: most of the better Christmas films of the last decade or so have either been black comedies or subversive horrors, and some have even involved the unthinkable -- violence inflicted on the person of Santa.
Times, it seems, have changed. While no one is likely to make a latter-day 'Meet Me in St Louis' or 'Miracle on 34th Street' any time soon, a thirst for Christmas-themed movies remains. And to suppose that all the great festive films of the past were entirely composed of sweetness and light is to miss their point entirely.
So what are the essential ingredients of a good Christmas movie, and what is it that makes us willing and eager to watch them over and over again?
It ought to be established at the outset that good Christmas films are few and far between. Film critic Peter Bradshaw once declared that "a new Christmas movie is almost invariably a bad thing. For every one good Christmas film there are 1,000 turkeys." He's not wrong.
Most Christmas films are pretty dreadful when viewed at any other time of year, and that's what makes the good ones special.
A happy ending is pretty much de rigeur in a Christmas movie. No one wants to watch feel-bad films at this time of the year, so neatly euphoric denouements are generally the order of the day. That, however, does not mean the entire film has to be maniacally cheery -- some of the most celebrated festive films explore very dark themes.
In 'It's a Wonderful Life' James Stewart tries to kill himself. The Smith family in 'Meet Me in St Louis' are about to get turfed out of their beloved homestead. And in 'Miracle on 34 Street', Kris Kringle is only hired as the Macy's Santa because the previous incumbent was a drunk. You can get as grim as you like in a festive film, provided you sort it all out in the end.
References to family are almost obligatory. 'Die Hard', that most unlikely of Christmas films, may be a bloody, action-packed thriller, but John McClane only gets mixed up with the terrorists because he's come to LA to visit his estranged wife in the hope of reuniting his sundered family.
"Cowboys and Indians meets 'The Towering Inferno'," was how Mark Kermode described 'Die Hard'. He argued it "demonstrates that there was no such thing as a template for a classic Christmas movie". I'm not so sure about that, however, because it's amazing how many Christmas films have been inspired by old Scrooge. Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' is a prototype for the Christmas movie if ever there was one. It's been adapted for the screen at least 25 times, with varying degrees of success, but when told properly, Dickens' story has exactly the right balance between dread and sentiment, sadness and cheer.
Though Robert Zemeckis recently spent $200million making a motion-capture animated version of the story, the best screen adaptations for me have always been the 1951 film 'Scrooge', starring Alastair Sim, and the 1970 musical of the same name, which starred a young Albert Finney.
In both films, I defy you not to shed a festive tear when Scrooge wakes up, realises he's been given a second chance and starts running around buying turkeys and giving away money like there's no tomorrow.
Things really don't get much more Christmassy than that, and most of the classic Christmas films have striven to reach similar emotional heights.
'Meet Me in St Louis' succeeded brilliantly. This classic 1944 musical follows the fortunes of well-to-do family the Smiths on the eve of the 1904 World's Fair. But disaster looms on Christmas night when Pa Smith announces the family will be moving to New York after the holidays.
"For a slice of unabashed sentimentality," says 'Hot Press's' Roe McDermott, "you can't beat Vincent Minnelli's nostalgic, musical portrait of family and first love.
But the film also evokes a haunting fear of loss. As little Margaret O'Brien tearfully destroys a family of snowmen, Judy Garland's heart-rending rendition of 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' completes the perfect Yuletide tear-jerker." It's a classic Christmas movie moment alright -- sad and funny and sentimental all at once.
Although 'Miracle on 34th Street' was remade competently in the mid-1990s, it's not a patch on the 1947 original.
English character actor Edmund Gwenn starred as Kris Kringle, a rosy-cheeked old fellow who's hired to play Santa in Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. Kris plays the part so well that the event's director (Maureen O'Hara) hires him to be the store's Santa.
He goes down a bomb with parents and children, but when he begins telling people that he really is Santa, Doris gets worried and a surreal court case ensues. Edmund Gwenn steals the show in a warmhearted film that literally screams Christmas.
You can't beat a bit of cosiness at this time of year, and 'White Christmas' (1954) is a case in point. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play a couple of entertainers who arrive at a troubled New England hotel to help out its owner, their former wartime commander.
The hope is that their nightly shows will draw in the punters, but meanwhile they fall in love -- though not with each other, of course. Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney (George's auntie) play the lucky ladies in a film replete with snow, sentiment and dodgy Christmas jumpers.
Following the tried and tested Scrooge model, a lot of Christmas films are gently moralistic and preachy. In Henry Koster's sometimes overlooked 1947 comedy 'The Bishop's Wife', David Niven played Henry Brougham, an ambitious Episcopal bishop who becomes so obsessed with his grandiose plans for a lavish new cathedral that he loses the run of himself entirely and is set straight by a no-nonsense angel (Cary Grant).
Of course, there's nothing wrong with the odd darker Christmas movie. According to Peter Bradshaw, for those "nauseated by the genre's corniness, the fave Christmas movie would have to be Terry Zwigoff's 'Bad Santa'".
That salty 2003 comedy starred Billy Bob Thornton as Willie Soke, a misanthropic department store Santa who hates kids and has a scam going with his elf sidekick, Marcus, to rob the store's safe after hours.
"The remarkable thing about Zwigoff's film," Bradshaw continues, "is that its Santa is addicted not merely to drink and to womanising, but specifically to anal sex."
Not very 'Miracle on 34th Street', you'll agree, and 'Bad Santa' was considered a bit too black by some on its release. Sentimental critics berated Disney for having backed a film that mocks the very spirit of Christmas, but actually it doesn't. Though 'Bad Santa' is bleak at times, the film has a heart. Willie is seldom sober and doesn't believe in anything, but begins to reassess his priorities when he meets a bullied and neglected boy.
Despite a relatively happy ending, 'Bad Santa' provides a salty antidote to all the yuletide schmaltz. As indeed does Joe Dante's devilish 1984 classic black comedy 'Gremlins'.
Then there are the films that shouldn't really be Christmas films at all. 'Some Like it Hot' is set in Miami, contains not a single reference to yuletide and takes place primarily in blazing sunshine. But it's become a festive staple because in the 1970s and 1980s, stations such as BBC2 began showing it every Christmas night. The same could be said of 'The Wizard of Oz', even though it's set in a resolutely Christ-less magical kingdom.
'The Great Escape' is another movie people associate indelibly with Christmas Day and chronic indigestion, but a film in which a load of daring chaps spend the guts of two hours burrowing their way out of a PoW camp only to be mown down by the Nazis does not seem especially festive to me.
'Die Hard', on the other hand, is violent but unmistakably Christmassy, and regularly makes lists of the top 10 Christmas films.
But what is the best Christmas film, the one that most effectively captures the spirit of the season? Look no further than 'It's a Wonderful Life'. Frank Capra's contemporary fairytale, set in an idyllic Midwestern town, was way over budget during its extended shoot, and was given a lukewarm reception by the critics when released for Christmas in 1946. "The weakness of this picture," wrote Bosley Crowther of 'The New York Times', "is the sentimentality of it -- its illusory concept of life".
Time has not been kind to Mr Crowther's view, and Capra's movie has long been championed by film buffs.
"The reason it's worth repeated viewing," adds the 'Evening Herald's' George Byrne, "is not just the eternal relevance of its theme but the message that everyone matters, even if they don't think they do. And if that final scene in front of the Bailey family Christmas tree doesn't bring tears to your eyes, I'd check to see if you actually do have a heart."
The parallels with 'A Christmas Carol' are obvious, but 'It's a Wonderful Life' has a unique and overpowering charm that's all its own. It is being shown on Christmas Eve, and I for one won't be missing it.