Richard J. Leskosky: Holiday classics hitting Virginia's big screen

Richard J. Leskosky: Holiday classics hitting Virginia's big screen

Certain films have become standard viewing around certain holidays — "Ben-Hur" at Easter, for instance, and "1776" for Independence Day. Christmas, though, has by far the most films associated with it as classics. This year's The Best Christmas Movies Ever in The News-Gazette Film Series at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign presents a big-screen gift of five memorable films that convey a Christmas message in five very different ways. Tickets are $6, with series passes available for $24.

'Home Alone' (1990)

7 p.m. Monday

Eight-year-old Kevin (Macauley Culkin) accidentally gets left behind in his family's Winnetka mansion when everyone else heads off to Paris for a Christmas vacation. Though he enjoys his freedom from bullying siblings and annoying cousins, he soon finds himself having to defend his home from a couple of determined holiday burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern).

One of writer-producer John Hughes' biggest hits, "Home Alone" made an instant star of Culkin and established Chris Columbus as a successful director of films with child actors. It also kicked off a new genre (of which its own four sequels — including TV movies — constituted a significant proportion): the child endangerment comedy, wherein a young child is threatened by felonious, bumbling adults but gets the better of them with ingenuity and spunk (or just luck).

"Home Alone" received Oscar nominations for John Williams' score and theme song, and Culkin won an American Comedy Award for Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture. It makes an especially fitting opener for this miniseries because its characters watch scenes from "Miracle on 34th Street" and "It's a Wonderful Life" on television, and Kevin lip-syncs "White Christmas" at one point (to a recording by The Drifters, not Bing Crosby, though).

'White Christmas' (1954)

7 p.m. Tuesday

Romance between a successful song and dance team (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) and a sister act (Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen) gets complicated when Bing and Danny try to help out their former World War II commanding officer (Dean Jagger) at his failing Vermont resort hotel (no snow, so no skiers). The solution? Put on a show, of course.

Paramount's first film in the widescreen VistaVision format and Technicolor starred Crosby at the top of his career with music by Irving Berlin, including two Oscar-winning songs: "White Christmas," which won its Oscar when Bing sang it in 1942 in "Holiday Inn," and "Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)." Despite director Michael Curtiz's reputation as a dictatorial director and the risks the studio was taking with the new widescreen process, a surprising amount of the film was improvised — most notably Crosby and Kaye's drag reprise of Clooney and Ellen's "Sisters" routine.

Modern viewers might be surprised at the film's military component and the songs praising or sympathizing with army generals. Of course, in the 1950s, the answer to the musical question "What Can You Do with a General?" was "Make him President"; and Jagger bore more than a passing resemblance to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Also, filming on "White Christmas" began only a couple months after the end of the Korean War (and preproduction had been going on for a couple of years).

Ellen's dance numbers with John Brascia (with whom she performed the following year in a Las Vegas revue) and Kaye are energetic showstoppers. Also, watch for future Oscar-winner George Chakiris as one of the backup dancers in Clooney's "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me" number.

'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946)

7 p.m. Friday

1 and 7 p.m. Saturday

George Bailey (James Stewart) always hoped to get away from his small hometown, Bedford Falls, but his family's Building and Loan company, its opposition to greedy banker and slumlord Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) and his own love for his wife Mary (Donna Reed) kept him there. When his company's funds go missing, and he faces jail, George despairs and seriously contemplates suicide, but heavenly intervention comes in the form of Angel Second Class Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), who shows George an alternate world where he was never born, and that doesn't so much change his life as make him realize how wonderful his life really is.

Producer-director Frank Capra collaborated with husband-and-wife screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (who had written comic mysteries in the Thin Man series and some Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddie musicals) on the script, and it's very much in style of the pre-war socially aware comedies that had established his reputation. The film earned five Oscar nominations: Picture, Actor (Stewart), Director, Sound and Film Editing and won a Technical Achievement Award for its new techniques for making artificial snow.

In addition to the tons of artificial snow, the film represents a larger production than one might suspect for a small town dramatic comedy. The town of Bedford Falls, for instance, is essentially one huge 4-acre set. The main street that George runs down several times during the film was three city blocks long lined with 75 stores and buildings and 20 real oak trees.

'Elf' (2003)

7 p.m. Dec. 19

Thirty-year-old Buddy (Will Ferrell in his most endearing role) thinks he's one of Santa's elves but is actually a human. He'd crawled into Santa's bag when he was a baby and has been raised by the elf (Bob Newhart) in charge of keeping Santa's (Ed Asner) sleigh running. When he's finally told the truth, he goes in search of Walter (James Caan), his real father, a New York publisher of children's books, who is nonetheless on Santa's "naughty" list.

Once Buddy finds Walter in the strange new world of New York City, he has to find a way to fit in as well as deal with the general disbelief in Santa. He also has to get over his total inexperience dealing with women when he becomes smitten with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), who only plays an elf in Gimbel's Santa Land. (Gimbel's actually closed in 1987.) Everything gets worked out, though, when Santa crash lands in Central Park and Buddy has to help him get airborne again.

"Elf" was a huge hit when it was first released, and it has inspired a Broadway musical, "Elf: The Musical," and a musical television retelling, "Elf: Buddy's Musical Christmas."

The film, directed by Jon Favreau, relies more on practical effects (forced perspective and strategic placement of actors) than computer effects to achieve the apparent size differentials between humans and elves. The other inhabitants of Santa's North Pole neighborhood recall the stop-motion figures of popular children's specials.

'Miracle on 34th Street' (1947)

7 p.m. Dec. 21

When Macy's Department Store event planner Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara) suddenly needs a replacement Santa for the Thanksgiving Parade after her original hire turns up drunk, she enlists elderly Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) for the role. But she doesn't realize he really believes he is Santa.

Later, when Kris becomes the department store Santa, he directs parents to other stores to find toys at better prices. That actually promotes customer loyalty to Macy's, and it becomes store policy. Both Doris and her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) pragmatically refuse to believe in fantasies, but Kris eventually wins them over.

When a mean-spirited psychologist gets Kris committed to a mental hospital as delusional, Doris' neighbor and suitor, attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne), can secure his release only by proving in court that he really is Santa Claus.

All the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade scenes were shot during the actual parade, and most of the scenes inside Macy's were also shot on location. So in addition to its other pleasures, the film provides a peek into actual bits of New York City culture in the late 1940s.

Gwenn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role, writer-director George Seaton won for Best Screenplay and Valentine Davies won for Best Story. The film also received a Best Picture nomination. Though "Miracle on 34th Street" opened in June (unusual for a Christmas film), it stayed in theaters well past Christmas.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

Topics (1):Film
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