My Favorite Christmas Movie is not...
My favorite Christmas movie of all time is not It’s A Wonderful Life, although it runs a close second. It is not A Christmas Story, which wore out its welcome after the third or fourth viewing. It’s not Miracle on 34th Street, any of them, although the 1947 version with Edmund Gwenn as Santa can sometimes warm the heart. I remember laughing through much of the Tim Allen obesity movie, A Santa Claus, the first time, but the second time I began to sniff the pre-fab schmaltz running through the thing. The Will Ferrell atrocity, Elf, made me wish I was Jewish and stiffs like Ron Howard’s version of the Grinch and the Michael Keaton misfire Jack Frost make me long for a hut in the Galapagos.
Three years ago I persuaded my family we needed to see the French film, A Christmas Tale, and we all agreed it was a mess, a feel-bad experience; my one chance that Christmas break to corral our busy then-high school age children into a movie theater with their parents and I blew it. I’ve never been a fan of the cult Christmas movies, like Santa Clause Conquers the Martians or Nightmare Before Christmas, but my son and I share a fondness for Bad Santa, starring Billy Bob Thornton as the horny reprobate who learns a tricky lesson about love and family with the help of a dwarf, a fat kid, John Ritter and a wooden pickle. Bad Santa is definitely my all-time Christmas movie guilty pleasure.
White Christmas and Meet Me in St. Louis never worked for me as Christmas movies, since their storylines all precede the holiday. One year I convinced my wife to watch a little-known Western called Will Penny, which also didn’t get around to actual Christmas Day until the end of the film, when Charlton Heston’s itinerant cowboy tentatively sang “O Tannenbaum” with a lonely widow and her son while decorating their scrawny prairie tree. An affecting moment, but the film, elegiac and windswept, could hardly be considered a Christmas keeper.
No, my favorite Christmas movie, also now embraced by my family and a traditional viewing choice every Christmas (in fact, we may have to take a break from it this year), is called The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, starring the family that everyone loves to roll their eyes at, the Waltons. The movie was a pilot for the series, with different actors playing Ma, Pa and Grandpa, but Grandma and the cast of kids are the same as the long-running TV show.
It’s Christmas Eve on Walton’s Mountain, and John-Boy, the eldest son and tortured adolescent writer, becomes the de facto head of the family while their father is delayed coming home from his factory job in the city. It’s the Depression, work is hard to come by, money is scarce, the only telephone is at the corner store, and John-Boy must borrow a car to go search for his dad, who may have been injured or worse in a bus accident. Patricia Neal plays the mother, keeping a dignified hold on her nerves for the sake of the kids while worried sick about her husband and the thickening snowfall. There is no money for presents this year, but there is a Robin Hood driving the countryside distributing stolen turkeys to needy families.
The Homecoming touches on many issues within its tightly packed 100 minutes: a crippled economy, religious hypocrisy, rural self-righteousness and segregation, while the universal themes of respect for tradition and home are expressed within the typical joshing of a close-knit, extended family. The movie might play like heartland hogwash to the cynic; a laughable, white-bread celebration of homely, rural values to us citified, multi-ethnic, multi-sexual, hard-eyed unsentimentalists, especially if we grew up with dysfunctional, separated or non-existent families. But you’d have to be some type of calcified Scrooge to not appreciate the resonance this Walton’s Christmas movie has for our troubling, digitally distracted age of instant gratification and financial insecurity. The Homecoming expresses a utopian vision of the American Dream built not on money or stuff or ideology or religion, but on the simple promise of a family pulling together in hard times. If there is one movie you’ve never tried on Christmas, make 2011 your year for The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, starring the Waltons.