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Forget Hallmark, classic Christmas films are still best

POSTED December 20, 2017 9:41 a.m.
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It wasn't so long ago that the list of Christmas films to choose from each year wasn’t all that lengthy.

There were the usual memorable classics, some enjoyable nonclassics and some that ranged from mildly watchable to completely intolerable, including a few stray made-for-TV efforts. That was about it.

And yet, the offerings were plentiful, keeping the airwaves filled each December with holly jolly entertainment.

These days, however, everyone and their cousin seem to be making holiday flicks, so that the 21st-century airwaves — or rather, the cable/satellite/streaming sites — are flooded to overflowing.

The Hallmark and Lifetime cable channels excel at this, grinding out several new movies every year, so that the stack just gets higher and higher. In fact, those two channels have almost cornered the market on holiday sap.

At Hallmark, they’ve instituted the annual “Countdown to Christmas,” with a website that screams this subhead: “Holiday movies all day! All night!” Also included on the website are a sweepstakes and a fantasy game because nothing says “Merry Christmas” like putting in a bid to win free money.

And over at Lifetime, there’s the annual “Countdown Until Christmas.” (See what they did there, “until” instead of “to”?)

Each channel now has so many titles in its respective catalog that in order to squeeze them all in — with plentiful reruns, just in case you aren’t glued to your screen 24/7 — they both begin their countdowns in October. Yes, Christmas movies before Halloween. Trick or treat?

Some of these movies are better than others, of course, but they all seem to follow the same template. Whether comedies, fantasies or dramas, they’re very sentimental, romantic, boast happy endings and often look like flimsy knockoffs of Christmas classics (especially Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” which has been adapted into umpteen films and TV shows and unofficially reworked into dozens more).

Even the titles are interchangeable, with key designations that signal Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s, and generic descriptive terms.

Consider these 2017 TV-movie titles:

“Miss Christmas” and “Marry Me at Christmas”: the romance that is bound to culminate in a wedding.

“My Christmas Prince” and “A Royal New Year’s Eve”: the romance that is bound to culminate in a commoner becoming royalty.

“The Mistletoe Inn,” “Christmas at Holly Lodge” and “Snowed-Inn Christmas”: the hostel where a romance is bound to take place.

My favorite is this more obvious riff on a popular movie title — “Four Christmases and a Wedding.” (What, no funeral?)

The only surprise is that no dogs are bringing people together this year.

But Hallmark and Lifetime aren’t alone in creating new holiday features. Occasional Christmas TV movies have been around for years, and we still see periodic theatrical holiday pictures — which range from sleazy drek such as “A Bad Moms Christmas” to delightful family films such as “The Man Who Invented Christmas” (both now playing at a theater near you).

And sometimes, however ill advised, TV and movie producers will blatantly update a beloved classic — not just an uncredited ripoff but an actual adapted remake, as is the case with these:

“Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) is pretty much the perfect holiday comedy, and Edmund Gwenn earned an Oscar for his delightful role as Kris Kringle. But that didn’t stop Hollywood from coming up with no less than four remakes, all with the same title. Three TV adaptations have Kringle being played by, respectively, Thomas Mitchell (1955), Ed Wynn (1959) and Sebastian Cabot (1973), and the 1994 theatrical remake features Richard Attenborough in the role.

“The Bishop’s Wife” (1947) is a charming fantasy with Cary Grant as an angel who helps an Episcopal bishop (David Niven) to see that his wife (Loretta Young) and daughter are more important than his aspirations for a new cathedral. The remake, “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996), stars Denzel Washington, Courtney B. Vance and Whitney Houston in those respective roles.

“The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) stars James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as co-workers who dislike each other, unaware that they are also the same people with whom they are anonymously exchanging romantic letters. In “You’ve Got Mail” (1998), Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are competing bookstore owners who anonymously correspond via email.

“Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) has Barbara Stanwyck as a nationally famous food columnist who writes about her Connecticut farm and family. Except that she’s a single New Yorker and can’t cook. Then her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet), unaware of the charade, arranges a publicity stunt — she’ll host a war hero (Dennis Morgan) for a holiday meal. The 1992 TV update has the same title, with Dyan Cannon, Tony Curtis and Kris Kristofferson in those respective roles. (And it was directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger!)

“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). Yes, there’s even a remake of Frank Capra’s timeless classic about a banker (James Stewart) who gets a chance to see what the world would have been like if he’d never been born. A number of films rip off the theme, such as “Mr. Destiny” (1990) with Jim Belushi and “The Family Man” (2000) with Nicolas Cage. But the 1977 TV movie “It Happened One Christmas” is a direct remake, albeit with a female twist: Mary (Marlo Thomas) is the main character and the angel is Clara Oddbody (Cloris Leachman). (Orson Welles is villainous Mr. Potter.)

So don’t be fooled by off-brands. Buy quality labels you can trust.

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