Book Review: Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas by Alonso Duralde

A guide to Christmas movies, from best to worst and everything in between, including Brazil.
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Christmas time is a time for many things, and one of the things that I most enjoy are the movies. We all know such classics as It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947), but in Have Yourself A Movie Little Christmas author Alonso Duralde stretches the definition of “Christmas movies” to include all sorts of non-traditional flicks. To find homes for the 122 movies discussed in this book, Duralde has grouped them in nine chapters, with such headings as “Putting the Heist Back in Christmas: Crime and Action Extravaganzas,” “There’ll Be Scary Ghost Stories: Holiday Horror,” and “Nestled All Snug in Their Beds: Christmas Movies for Grown Ups.” If nothing else, this is the most thorough discussion of Christmas movies I have ever seen.

“With the Kids Jingle-Belling: Christmas Movies for Kids” is the title of the first chapter, and it would seem to mine familiar territory, until we look at the films Duralde has chosen. The inclusion of The Santa Clause (1994) and It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Movie (2002) certainly make sense, but Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) and Home Alone (1990) had me scratching my head. I understand that the last two take place during Christmas, but they are not movies I think of as Christmas movies.

As I quickly discovered, the idea is to include every feature with even the slightest connection to Christmas. Here are a few more choices that  surprised me:  Brazil (1985), Meet John Doe (1941), Die Hard (1988), Gremlins (1984), and Batman Returns (1992). I‘m sorry, but Michael Keaton as Batman just not does not make me think of Christmas, and Terry Gilliam’s retro-futuristic masterpiece Brazil? Uh-uh.

The final three chapters do deliver what I consider true Christmas movies  however. In “Scrooge-a-Palooza: A Christmas Carol on Film,” Duralde reviews 22 filmed versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I knew there were a lot, and I believe there are many more, but 22 are certainly enough. The first is Scrooge (1935), and the most recent is A Christmas Carol (2009). The oddest is Carol for Another Christmas (1964), which I have never seen, but sounds fascinating. Another one I had never heard of before is Barbie in A Christmas Carol (2008), which sounds exactly like what you would expect.

Chapter Eight is “The Worst Christmas (Movies) Ever: Lumps of Coal in Your Cinema Stocking.” For those of us who enjoy The Golden Turkey Awards and seeing who wins the “Razzie” each year, discussions of bad movies are always fun. Duralde reviews ten of the worst Christmas movies ever made. I was a little disappointed to see Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) however, because like Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) it is beyond categorization. “Bad Christmas movie” just does not cut it. In my household Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is as much a tradition as It’s a Wonderful Life. The remaining nine movies in this chapter are ones that most of us have probably never seen. Based on Duralde’s reviews though, a couple of titles that I will be on the lookout for are The Magic Christmas Tree (1964) and Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972). Both sound deliriously bad.

The final “Just Like the Ones I Used to Know: Christmas Classics” delivers what I had expected all along. This chapter is a celebration of eleven Christmas films, true classics that can be enjoyed at any time of the year, but are especially appropriate now. The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) is the first, starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. Sure, it is manipulative and corny, but it is great. So great in fact that Frank Capra paid tribute to it in It’s a Wonderful Life (also in this chapter), when George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) comes out of his reverie and shouts “Merry Christmas, movie house!” The Bells of St. Mary’s is on the marquee.

Another film that I do not necessarily consider a Christmas movie, but will not argue with is Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). It surprises me that Meet Me in St. Louis is all but forgotten today because it is so good. Definitely my second-favorite Judy Garland film, behind The Wizard of Oz (1939). The author lists the movies in each chapter in alphabetical order, so White Christmas (1954) comes in as the final entry. It is another Bing Crosby film, and in it he sings the classic title song. Crosby first sang "White Christmas" in Holiday Inn (1942), and it topped the charts for the first time that year.

Holiday Inn contained a scene depicting a minstrel show complete with men in blackface. The scene was considered offensive even in 1942. In part, White Christmas was made to utilize the story and present the song in a way that would not be marred by a section that many found objectionable. White Christmas is every bit the holiday classic it was intended to be.

For the record, Miracle on 34th Street is my all-time favorite Christmas film. For every movie in this book Duralde includes a “Fun Facts” segment. These are bits of little-known trivia, and I discovered some interesting things about Miracle. One of these was that the film was actually released in July, as studio chief Daryl Zanuck believed that more people went to the movies in the summer than during the holidays. I knew that Edmund Gwenn had won Best Supporting Actor for his performance, but I did not know that he appeared as Santa Claus in the real 1946 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The biggest piece of trivia I learned about Miracle was what was said when a little Dutch girl sat on Santa's lap and spoke to him in her native language. Since the conversation was not subtitled, I always assumed that she asked for a doll or something like that. According to the book, she is telling him that she does not want anything for Christmas at all, because she already has gotten the best present ever,  being adopted by her American mother.

The spirit of giving and of family is what I look for in Christmas movies. They may be unabashedly manipulative and sentimental, but who cares? The best of these films make us feel good, and sometimes that is what we need the most. The discovery of Kris Kringle’s cane inside the house of Susan’s (Natalie Wood) dreams at the end of Miracle on 34th Street is one of the great moments in film. It is a genuinely moving scene, and sums up the very best of what Christmas movies mean to me.

I had my doubts about some of the films chosen for Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas, but the author makes persuasive arguments. There are literally hundreds of other Christmas movies, as is shown in one of the appendices. The author lists approximately 375 more films that have some connection to Christmas, but again the list stretches the definition of a Christmas movie. Included without discussion are such titles as Citizen Kane (1940), The Godfather (1972), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). Of all of the ones on the list, I think Duralde should have included The Family Man (2000) starring Nicolas Cage, but that just goes to show how fluid the discussion of movies can be, and how much fun these discussions can be as well.

Whether you agree with his points or not, Duralde's writing style is entertaining and enlightening. I also applaud his “Fun Facts” for each movie, which as mentioned earlier, are insightful, and well…fun. If you are looking for that off-the-beaten-path book for the movie lover in your life, Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas just might be it.

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