Magazine article The Spectator

Happy Beginningsville

Magazine article The Spectator

Happy Beginningsville

Article excerpt

Which film contains the following advertising slogan? `If you can't sleep, it's not the coffee, it must be the bunk.'

Answer: Preston Sturges's Christmas in July (1940), with Dick Powell as the hapless ad man who dreams of winning the lottery. It isn't, technically, a Christmas film, but watching Christmas in July at Christmas in December may be a better bet than sitting through the Alastair Sim Christmas Carol or Miracle on 34th Street for the umpteenth time. By Miracle on 34th Street, I mean the Edmund Gwenn/Natalie Wood version, not last year's remake with Richard Attenborough as Santa - a sad reminder that a Christmas classic is harder to pull off than it looks.

Two of the best holiday films not only aspire to the same dreamy, sated condition as post-prandial Christmas Day itself, but they're almost like cousins of each other. Meet Me in St Louis ( 1946) follows a year in the life of the Smith family from the summer of 1903; Fanny and Alexander (1983) does likewise for a Swedish family in 1907. One wouldn't wish to exaggerate the similarities -- Ingmar Bergman's film is autobiographical, Vincente Minnelli's is as far as possible from the life he lived or would have wanted. But both Minnelli and Bergman are great sensualists as film-makers, and both pictures are as much a feast of lights and shapes and colours and movements as they are anything else. And, of course, in both films, the Christmas segment is the high point.

For Meet Me in St Louis, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote one of the best Christmas songs of all, introduced by Judy Garland with the help of a little wind-up music-box, as she tries to comfort her kid sister, Margaret O'Brien, about their move to New York. At the end of the song, little Margaret bursts into tears, rushes out into the front yard and demolishes her snowmen. Discussing the film with Hugh Martin a while back, I congratulated him on an incredibly powerful scene. `Yes, but it was child abuse,' he said. `Just before shooting that day, Minnelli told Margaret that her dog had been run over. He hadn't. But Margaret burst into tears and he just kept the cameras rolling.'

For an antidote to Christmas movies, try New Year movies. You know you've been at the New Year's Eve party too long when the Christmas tree seems to be hanging from the ceiling and the guests are frantically trying to climb up it. …

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