Christmas — Canadian film style

Christmas time heralds many things — presents, decorations…radio stations switching over to an all-carol format. And, of course, what can be both a highlight — and a scourge — of the yuletide season: the Christmas movie. As much as eggnog and stockings, the family gathering around the boob tube to watch — or re-watch — Christmas themed movies can be a beloved tradition in many-a-home.

And don’t producers and programmers know it, eh?

So every year, in addition to re-running acknowledged classics, much lesser and dodgier efforts will also get dusted off and slapped on the schedule, and of course there are the multitude of newly minted offings. And as with all things Christmas, I’m sure there’s a mix of genuine sincerity…and crassest commercial pragmatism. After all, any filmmakers who grew up watching It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol harbour some slight fantasy that they, too, might be able to craft some lasting ode to Christmas Spirit that will touch and affect people for generations to come as they, themselves, were touched. And they are equally aware, cynically, that even a terrible Christmas cheapie knocked out in a couple of weeks, will probably attach itself to the season, barnacle-like, and return with an almost malaria-like regularity year after year…assuring the filmmakers residual checks for years to come. There’s as much mercenary as mirthfulness in the making of holiday movies.

And to be fair — some regard such potential immortality with trepidation. I once read an interview with an actor who admitted some nervousness about accepting a role in a Christmas movie, because the actor noted if the movie was terrible…he’d be stuck with it for years to come!

When it comes to “classics” there are certain widely embraced movies…and others that are more singular and personal. I’ve seen Christmas movies that do nothing for me — indeed, that I loathe — that others will proclaim a beloved tradition in their household. When it comes to inevitable re-makes, some seem to regard the versions as interchangeable…even as I might regard one as clearly superior to others.

I had certain films I regarded as “classics” but recently have expanded my thinking, at least a bit, having spent a few holidays with relatives who have introduced me to newer “classics” they like to re-watch, and which have, indeed, kind of grown on me — particularly those aimed at a more grown up audience than are the family classics I consider staples. Love Actually, The Family Stone as well as more boisterous efforts like Elf, the hilarious Just Friends, or even Surviving Christmas. I think it was last year that I turned on a TV movie called “November Christmas” on a whim…and surprised myself by liking it. Obviously, different movies strike different tones — some genuinely overflowing with Christmas sentiment…others are just comedies, or romances, that use Christmas as just a convenient backdrop. Sometimes Christmas traditions can be episodes of old TV series — more than a few Christmases have seen my popping the funny Partridge Family Christmas episode, “Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town”, into the DVD player (“What’s a bell-bell, Belle?”) or the Sherlock Holmes story “The Blue Carbuncle”. Some movies can take on a holiday association, even if they are not about the holidays — particularly Hollywood blockbusters (perhaps there’s a favourite James Bond movie or Star Trek film you like to settle back to re-watch at this time of year). While The Sound of Music is certainly a holiday staple…I’ve only seen it occasionally, myself. I like it — but the commercial breaks are so frickin’ long!

For me, the cinematic anchors of the holidays from my childhood was the triumvirate of A Miracle on 34th St. (1947 version), It’s a Wonderful Life (the original), and A Christmas Carol (1951).

I’ve seen a lot of versions of A Christmas Carol over the years (including radio adaptations and, of course, having read the original book) and have yet to find one that matches the 1951 version starring Alistair Sim. Oh, others have their moments, individual scenes that rise to the occasion, actors who bring a certain personal style to Scrooge, but as a well rounded production, mixing laugh-out-loud comedy, scares, and heart-breaking pathos, all anchored by a stellar central performance, the Alistair Sim version can’t be beat.

I find other A Christmas Carol movies often seem to miss the nuance of the themes and motives being explored — the filmmakers aware of the story’s cliches and beats, but losing track of what they are supposed to mean, like a singer who can sing the melody well enough…but has stopped paying attention to the meaning of the lyrics.

Likewise, the 1947 Miracle of 34th Street is a very funny comedy, deliciously cynical even as it is also up-lifting and sentimental. And, in a sense, of those “classics” to which I allude, it is the secular Christmas fable. Some later versions of the story I’ve seen seem to lose track of the comedy aspect, recreating the same scenes…but without the snappy, witty dialogue that gets laughs even after repeated versions. And in the 1994 version, there seemed to be an added effort to wrench the movie away from its secularism and turn it into a religious movie — when the appeal of the original was that its message of good will and “imagination” wasn’t tethered to any particular belief system.

Yet because of the need to recycle Christmas movies — any Christmas movie — to fill a schedule, the also rans get just as much air time as the classics. The CBC annually airs the 1994 Miracle on 34th Street and, I’ll admit, I can get a bit Grinch-like whenever I see that pretender in the TV listings (even as I’m sure others, particularly those of a younger generation who grew up on it, might react differently). Likewise, the CBC also airs the Alistair Sim A Christmas Carol…but in its appalling colourized version! I don’t know what’s worse — that anyone would colourize a movie that was so obviously made to be black and white (with its use of shadows and gothic mood) or that it was so obviously colourized at a point when the process was in its infancy and it…just…looks…awful. I can’t imagine anyone willingly watching that version (without turning off the colour on their TV). But I suspect the CBC airs it simply because it’s all they could get — I believe CTV owns the broadcast rights to the true black & white version (as well as the 1947 Miracle of 34th Street).

But honestly, as much as I love the Alistair Sim A Christmas Carol, I don’t think showing the colourized version does it — or the audience — any favours. Frankly, if the CBC is desperate to have a version of the story to re-cycle every year…maybe they should just make their own version they can slip into rotation (can’t you picture someone like Gordon Pinsent playing Ebeneezer Scrooge?).

Which kind of brings me to the “Canadian film” aspect of this essay.

As mentioned, the yuletide season is a veritable blank check for those ready and willing to make Christmas movies — in the States I think there’s even a Hallmark Channel which, I’m guessing, relies quite a bit on airing seasonally themed programs. And where there’s a demand, there are more than a few Canadian filmmakers eager to provide the supply. Type in the word “Christmas” into the IMDB and dozens of TV movies made in just the last few years will pop up…and the lion’s share are Canadian, or Canadian co-productions, mainly made for the American market. And you’ll also notice the same directors and writers will be associated with more than a few of them. Now, I’m all for Christmas Spirit, but I’m guessing when the same directors are churning out a dozen Christmas themed movies in just a few years…it’s a factory job more than anything truly motivated by holiday sentiment.

Which probably explains the general mediocrity of them. They are made to fill a quota, like mass produced Christmas lights, rather than lovingly hand crafted decorations.

That isn’t to say there isn’t a token sincerity to them — they try to touch the key bases, being about cynics finding Christmas Spirit, depressives re-discovering hope, estranged families re-united by the forgiveness of the season, etc. I’m sure the actors enjoy a certain tingle the first day on the set, thinking how they now get to star in a Christmas movie just like the movies they grew up on. Even as, I suspect, they are well aware they aren’t working on anything of the same calibre as the classics they loved.

Still, when I used the word “mediocrity”, I did so deliberately — as opposed to “bad” (though some are that). Because though a lot of these films you wouldn’t necessarily recommend to a friend, if you’re flipping around the TV, looking for something to half watch while wrapping presents, or to keep you awake on a lonely wintery night, they can probably kill a couple of hours. After all, Christmas is the time of good will and forgiveness…and the filmmakers, cynical old sons that they are, are counting on that — are counting on the audience’s generosity of spirit. After all, you can watch a Christmas themed movie around Christmas time and declare it “okay”…even as at any other time of the year, divorced from the Christmas trappings, you’d be more ready to pounce on the story holes, the illogical motivation, the trite plot.

Yet despite all these multitude of Canadian-made Christmas movies churned out over the years — I’m not sure Canada has ever produced a classic…or even a semi-classic. Something that warrants a re-watching and you would happily put on the shelf between your DVDs of It’s a Wonderful Life and Elf.

As with so many films made in Canada, very few of them are even explicitly Canadian — most aimed at the American market, featuring American actors in American settings. Although there may be a slight shift in recent years with some of these TV movie products — some recent Canadian-made films (like Christmas Magic) though set in the U.S. for a U.S. market…nonetheless featured an all-Canadian cast!

Funnily, one quasi-classic is A Christmas Story which, apparently, is beloved by some…I say “apparently” because the one time I saw it, I didn’t much care for it, finding it a little too strident and abrasive. But, hey, maybe I should try it again some year. But what’s funny about it, is that it is often referred to as being “Canadian”…but I’m not really sure it is in any substantial way (though it was shot in Canada). So aside from the fact that it didn’t float my boat…I’m not sure I’d count it among Canadian movies anyway.

Though as I say, a lot of technically Canadian movies…aren’t really Canadian in any obvious on screen way.

Perhaps the first big stab at a Canadian “classic” was One Magic Christmas — a big budget theatrical release…though of course with a lot of American actors imported and being set in an ambiguous Anytown, North America. But aside from a singular and memorable take on Santa Claus by Jan Rubes, it seemed to me it missed the point of Christmas Spirit (not unlike what I said about some versions of A Christmas Carol) resulting in a message that’s rather mean and grim, rather than up-lifting and heartening (more bullying someone to embrace the Christmas Spirit). Another big budget stab — this one for TV — was Must Be Santa, about an everyman (Arnold Pinnock, of The Listener and Combat Hospital) tagged to become Santa Claus (in echoes of the Tim Allen movie, The Santa Clause). Although made for the CBC, it too was a U.S. co-production, so once again it doesn’t really admit to being set in Canada…though at least this time most of the cast were Canadian (save American import Dabney Coleman). Must Be Santa is of the close but no cigar category — a decent watch, but not something that quite begs you to return next year.

A problem with a lot of Christmas movies is a feeling they have trouble quite settling on the tone they want — and are focused on being a Christmas movie, rather than on being just a movie (with the more stringent standards that requires). So they’ll often be light-hearted…while lacking any genuine comic scenes. They’ll have a romantic plot…without really being something where we really care about the lovers. Etc.

Another Canadian Christmas movie that comes to mind was the TV flick Ebeneezer, which relocated A Christmas Carol to the wild west. It actually was nominally set in Canada — nominally in that one suspects they originally planned to set it in the American west, then figured they could set it in Canada just by changing a police man’s jacket from cavalry blue to red serge. Though it was still headlined by some American actors (including Jack Palance as Ebeneezer). The problem with the incessant desire to re-make A Christmas Carol is that, really, how many versions of the story can you possibly sit through in a given December? Even if they do change the setting, and a few details, by and large it’s just the same story, the same scenes, the same themes, as all the others. Unless you can borrow the basic idea of the story, but sufficiently overhaul it to create something different…an example of which we’ll get to before the end of this essay…

Obviously, there are Canadian-made Christmas movies I’ve seen that have certainly been decent watches (Santa Who? — though how “Canadian” it was, I’m not sure — and Small Gifts) — and plenty more that I haven’t seen at all, and may well be an undiscovered Christmas classic (the CBC tends to trot out Booky’s Secret Santa and a Heartland Christmas, but I’ve yet to catch them). And movies that take place around Christmas…but are hardly Christmas-y: Black Christmas, The Silent Partner, or the Arty thriller Kings and Desperate Men.

Still, there are a couple that come to mind as worthy mentions.

The Man Who Saved Christmas was of the American-aimed Canadian movie field, being set in the States, about real life toy maker A.C. Gilbert (appealingly played by American actor Jason Alexander). It’s a mix of Christmas themes, with a bio-pic, and a homefront drama (set during World War I). Granted, I’ve only seen it once…so I don’t know if it quite would hold up for repeated viewings, but I recall it as an unexpectedly good effort.

Perhaps the closest Canadian movie that comes to my mind as being, if not a classic, or even a semi-classic, but at least a worthy contender, was the movie The Ghosts of Dickens’ Past — though admittedly it’s been a few years since I last saw it. Like with the Man Who Saved Christmas, it was as much a historical drama as a Christmas movie, but it was also a clever variation on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (which in addition to getting re-made a zillion times, the plot has also liberally been borrowed for other movies). By that I mean though you could see the echoes of A Christmas Carol in it, it wasn’t just the same scenes and story recycled. In this case, the story is about Dickens, feeling a bit melancholy at Christmas time, who then is taken on an odyssey through London’s slums by a mysterious, possibly supernatural street urchin. So Dickens himself is cast as Ebeneezer Scrooge — though a Scrooge who has not so much lost his faith in Christmas, but is on the cusp of losing his faith. It’s a spiritual intervention, more than the full scale redemption Scrooge required, and the journeys through past and present are less overtly supernatural (though with a hint of that). It also boasts a Canadian cast…including an anchoring performance by charismatic Christopher Heyerdahl as Dickens. Again, whether it can really stand repeated viewings…I dunno. But it’s one case of a Canadian Christmas movie where I have deliberately watched it at least twice over the years (though I do wish they had made a little more effort to be true to the historical facts of Dickens’ life).

Still, given how inevitable Christmas movies are, and, as mentioned, how Christmas movies have almost become a cottage industry in Canada (Canadian filmmakers basically the North Pole elves of cinema, merrily toiling away at a succession of Christmas movies) it’s disappointing they haven’t offered more that stand as worthy contenders on the field. (Granted, one could say that about Canadian film in general!). Sure, as with anything — it ain’t easy. Hollywood churns out plenty of disappointing festive concoctions itself. And, as mentioned, I suspect a lot of these Canadian movies are fuelled by only a dollop of true sincerity…and are mainly powered by pragmatism.

Christmas movies can take on a variety of forms…fantasy & magical or realist & down-to-earth; comedy or drama; family-aimed or more adult; full of Christmas sentiment or a spoof of Christmas-time schmaltz. (Often Christmas movies get derailed precisely because they can’t decide which they want to be, and end up trying to be a little of everything with contradictory results).

If I were to be snarky, I might suggest part of the problem with Canadian filmmakers making Christmas movies is it requires a certain inner soul to do them right — compassion, empathy, an understanding of the traditional themes inherent in a Christmas movie (redemption, forgiveness, etc.) and a love of your characters, and, indeed, a love of your audience, a desire to please them. And having been an observer of Canadian film for many, many years…I sometimes think these virtues are lacking in many Canadian filmmakers. Oh, not so much that Hollywood filmmakers are intrinsically better people than Canadian ones…but I do sometimes think they know how to fake it better.

Still, it’s 12 months till the next barrage of Christmas-themed movies, time enough for some Canadian filmmaker to surprise us all with that most unexpected and lasting of presents…a good Christmas movie!

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2 Responses to Christmas — Canadian film style

  1. Mary says:

    Hello. I’m looking for a Canadian made christmas movie set during the first or second world war of last century. It’s main character is a little girl living with her mother and brother outside a small rural town while the father is away oversea in the war (as a prisoner, I think). The supporting characters are similar to Nutcracker character of a mystical owl-like older man that befriends the family and his “helpers” dressed similar to crows. The girl receives a nutcracker from the gentleman and afterward at night has a vision of her father (which apparently he shares at the same moment during christmas). This inspires the girl to know that her father will return safely, which he does. The older man and “crows” are never seen again. A very sweet movie. I’ve seen the movie twice on the Candian television network, CBC. I don’t recall the movie’s name, can’t find it any where, and would like to purchase it. Do you know the name of this movie? I would so much appreciate your help. Thank-you

    • Administrator says:

      It doesn’t ring a bell — with luck someone else will stumble on this post and maybe can offer a suggestion. Was it a feature film or shorter TV special (say half an hour or something)?