Holiday movie classics

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There is a good deal more to holiday motion pictures than Burl Ives singing "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" and Chevy Chase sliding off the roof of his home while stringing Christmas lights.

Christmas movies run the gamut from the noir-ish 1946 Frank Capra classic "It's a Wonderful Life" to the animatedly sexist "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

Rudolph sexist?

Hey, stop and think. Only the male reindeers are offered an opportunity to compete to determine who will pull Santa's sleigh on Christmas Eve. It's ironic that the film is a morality play. It's meant to teach children not to ostracize others simply because their appearance differs from the norm, yet the film leaves the female reindeer on the sidelines, blushing at the sight of all those big strong men.

Gimme a break, Santa!

When it comes to serious holiday movies, film buffs naturally gravitate to a couple of black-and-white classics from the 1940s.

Steamboat Springs resident Sheri Steiner said "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street" were significant parts of her childhood.

"My Mom turned me on to these movies. She and I anxiously waited every year for them to be shown on TV," Steiner said. "After watching them, we knew it was the holiday season. Both movies are whimsical fantasies, which move me to tears even today. Even though I don't watch them with my mom anymore, I certainly think about her and long-ago holiday memories every time I see them."

Scott Higgins, a professor of film at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., said Hollywood can't figure out how to make money from a film about the birth of Jesus Christ, and that leaves us with the secular.

The best of Hollywood's Christmas films rise to some form of morality play with skillful use of cinematic devices, and "It's a Wonderful Life" delivers.

"Probably the best storytelling you'll find in a holiday movie, aside from 'Die Hard,' is in 'It's a Wonderful Life,'" Higgins said. "The plot contains lots and lots of motifs (unifying elements) in the first half and every one of them pays off in the last third of the film."

Jimmy Stewart plays small-town banker George Bailey, who has grown so depressed about his inconsequential life he is thinking about ending it all on Christmas. Just as he is about to jump from a bridge, he is rescued by a guardian angel-in-training who shows him the benefit derived from all of his good deeds during the course of his life.

The visual motifs in the film give us early clues how the film will unfold. When George's young daughter gives him flower petals, it foreshadows the point in the story when the depressed man will rediscover that it is indeed a wonderful life.

"If anyone wants to find out why life is worth living, 'It's A Wonderful Life' is the one to watch," Steiner said. "No other film comes close to helping people to understand what things might have been like if an event in their lives had not taken place."

Former City Councilman Bud Romberg treasures "Miracle on 34th Street," the story of an earnest department store Santa who is so fervent in his belief that he is the real St. Nick that he winds up being committed to a mental hospital.

"Everyone thinks he's crazy," Romberg said. "In the movie, he's the real Santa Claus."

The movie causes viewers to stop and think about the innocence of children and their own willingness to believe in the nonliteral world.

"'Miracle On 34th Street' is a perfectly cast Christmas confection that surpasses all expectations and really does make viewers laugh and tear up," Steiner said. "Corny? Yes. Overacted? In some scenes, yes. Dated? Perhaps. But the message of belief, ultimately, is timeless and the silvery black-and-white cinematography is wonderful."

One might think that a man who has put on a red suit and white beard every Christmas for 26 years would identify with "Miracle on 34th Street."

But Patrick Browning can't get away from the innocence of a child in the film version of "The Night Before Christmas."

"Of all the holiday movies out there, I have a natural bias for Santa Claus movies," Browning said. "My lifelong favorite is the puppet version of 'The Night Before Christmas.' It's a perfect story for little kids. It's the Santa story that America loves."

Browning says he fully intends to dress up like the jolly old elf again this year and has already made reservations for his 28th season in December 2008.

Whiteman Primary School's Debbie Gooding indulges in a little nostalgia each year when she first notices the television commercial promoting "The Christmas Story."

"It takes me back to when my sons were young and the first time we watched the movie together," she said. "I can still see the looks of disbelief on their faces when the little boy was triple-dog-dared to stick his tongue on the frozen light post! For several years after that, whenever we would watch the movie again, they would hold their breath for a minute, knowing full well what was going to happen, and then burst out laughing. It's a fun memory that always makes me smile."

Lisa Bankard, wellness and community education director at Yampa Valley Medical Center, is fond of the dancing and music in the Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire classic "The Holiday Inn." However, her 10-year-old son has influenced her taste

"My more current holiday favorites include Jim Carrey in "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," because he brings a whole new dimension to the Grinch," she said. "These modern movies offer a nice blend of humor along with the important messages of what Christmas is really about."

Say, didn't Professor Higgins say something about "Die Hard?" Wasn't that a Bruce Willis action flick?

Well, the 1990 action feature "Die Hard 2: Die Harder" does take place in an airport on Christmas Eve.

Steamboat artist Bill Sanders says it's easily the most romantic holiday movie ever made.

"Not only does Bruce Willis get the girl (his wife), but he gets to blow up big things, do a whole bunch of MacGyver stuff and shoot a bunch of people," Sanders said. "The plot is good, and did I mention it stars Bruce Willis?"

Happy holidays - bang, kablam, kaboom!

- Tom Ross

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