4 Christmas Films

I’ve had a pretty nice Christmas this year. Liz and I went to a Christmas party night in a local hotel with a huge group of friends. We had a family afternoon get together in a nearby pub and we had family over for Christmas dinner. After that it was time to relax, pour a glass of wine, break out the mince pies and settle down for some Christmas TV.

The Railway Children

I’ve always liked The Railway Children. I’ve seen it a number of times but I’ve very rarely seen it all the way through from start to finish. The film’s title sequence involves the teenage Bobbie, played by Jenny Agutter in the lounge of her home. The camera pans over various family photos and in this way the actors and their characters are introduced to us. Bobbie, short for Roberta, is the eldest daughter and has a younger brother and sister and they all live together with their parents. During Christmas their father is taken away and we think he has been arrested for some reason. Without their father, the family fortunes dwindle and they are forced to move to a country house in Yorkshire. There the children spend time watching the steam trains and visiting the railway station meeting various people including the station master played by Bernard Cribbins. They have various adventures and eventually their father is returned to the family. The Railway Children is probably the most delightful and charming film I’ve ever seen. It was written and directed by Lionel Jefferies and released in 1970. According to Wikipedia, Jefferies read the book while returning from the US to the UK en route to film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and liked it so much he bought the film rights.

Amazing Film fact number 1: Sally Thomsett played Bobbie’s younger sister Phyllis aged 11 but in real life actress Sally was actually 20 and older than Jenny Agutter who played ‘older’ sister Bobbie. Sally’s contract forbade her to be seen smoking and drinking during the shoot.

It’s A Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those quintessential Christmas films that you can always find showing on TV at some time over the Christmas period. I love that film and come to think of it, I haven’t seen it for quite a few years. It’s about George Bailey played by James Stewart who looks forward to an interesting life of travel but then finds obligations force him to stay in the small town where he has always lived. George is beset by problems and even considers suicide but then his guardian angel -literally- arrives to help him. In order to prevent George committing suicide, the Angel shows George what life would have been like if George had never been born.

The secret of this picture is, I think, the fact that despite the fantasy premise of the film, everyone plays their parts as if they were in a serious drama. The result is that the drama and emotion of the situation rises to the surface and we are left with a vibrant and dramatic piece of cinema. The director, Frank Capra, has long been one of my favourite directors and in fact directed another of my favourite ever films, Lost Horizon.

Amazing Film Fact number 2: It’s A Wonderful Life was a box office failure when it was released in 1946. It only achieved classic status after 1974 when the film’s copyright expired and it was able to be broadcast on television without royalty fees. On TV the film found a new and enthusiastic audience.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

The Greatest Story Ever Told was directed by George Stevens who made such classic films as Shane and James Dean’s last film Giant. Stevens was a director who worked the way I would work if I was a director. He shot a great deal of film then sat back, reviewed everything and put his film together one brushstroke –or film clip- at a time. He chose Max to star as Jesus as he wanted a performer who was unknown to the general public.

Max was in a way an unusual choice to play Jesus; he was pale and blue eyed and had a faint Swedish accent. Even so, he played a good part, so much so that whenever I see another portrayal of Christ, I always mentally compare it to that of Max. As for being pale and blue eyed, I suppose it is inevitable that people everywhere will envisage their religious icons in their own terms.

He might have been better in choosing unknown actors for the other roles too because the many star appearances seem to stop the viewer in his or her tracks as we spot various top actors and actresses in minor roles.

I do have a personal reason for liking this film. Once, many years ago, my school friends and I were taken on a Christmas school trip to watch the film. We walked it as I remember in crocodile fashion from our junior school Crossacres, down Wiggins Hill and into Gatley, a small nearby village that boasted a lovely old cinema. That trip to watch this film did more for me than any teacher or RE lesson had ever done before or since and although I cannot claim to be overtly religious, I am certainly not an atheist and my respect for the person of Jesus has never been greater.

Amazing Film Fact Number 3: As I have mentioned, numerous star actors make guest appearances in the film from Sydney Poiter to Van Heflin, Angela Lansbury to Shelley Winters and many others but there is one I must mention; John Wayne as the Centurion who watches Jesus die on the cross. When Wayne uttered his immortal line, ‘truly this man was the son of God.’ Director George Stevens called ‘cut’ and asked Wayne to do the scene again but this time with more awe.

Wayne duly complied.

‘Action’ called Stevens.

‘Aww, truly this man was the son of God’ declared Wayne.

Blithe Spirit

I looked forward to watching this film with some trepidation. After all, the original version with a screenplay by Noel Coward himself and directed by David Lean was and still is a wonderful film and one of my absolute favourites. Rex Harrison plays the part of author Charles Condomine who invites Madame Arcarti into his home for a séance in order to see some of ‘the tricks of the trade’ that he assumes she will employ so that he can render these into his current novel. When the medium, played beautifully by Margaret Rutherford, conjures up the ghost or shadow of Condomine’s deceased wife neither he nor his current wife are amused. Coward himself adapted his own play for the screen and the witty dialogue presented immaculately in David Lean’s production is nothing short of a cinema gem.

Anyway, this new version starred Judi Dench as Madame Arcarti and did not in any way follow the path of Coward’s original although some of the old dialogue could occasionally be detected. Dan Stevens stars as Charles Condomine and Isla Fisher as his wife. Charles’ late wife, Elvira is played by Leslie Mann. Charles is writing a screenplay and he is suffering with writer’s block. However, on seeing what turns out to be a disastrous stage performance by Madame Arcarti, he invites her to his home where, just like the original, she evokes the spirit of Elvira. It turns out that Elvira wrote most of Charles’ books and the current Mrs Condomine isn’t amused when Elvira decides to help out with his pending screenplay.

The whole thing kept me quiet for a couple of hours but was hardly a patch on the original. For a start when current filmmakers film a story set in the past like this one which was set in the 1930’s, nothing ever looks as if it has been used before. Even though everything I’m sure was authentic; the motor cars, the furniture, the clothes and so on, everything is too good, too perfect, even down to the 30’s style haircuts and the art deco home where most of the action takes place. The other thing about the late 30s and early 1940’s is that the rhythm of the speech back then was quicker and more precise. Listen to actors like Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings and Margaret Rutherford from the original film or others from the period like David Niven, Ronald Colman and many more, their speech and delivery is so perfect and effortless, it is just a joy to listen to.

I don’t have any amazing facts about this film but the review in the Guardian was rather cutting: It can only be described as an un-reinvention, a tired, dated and unfunny period piece that changes the original plot a bit but offers no new perspective, and no new reason to be doing it in the first place.

That was a small slice of my TV viewing over the Christmas period and I can’t think of a Christmas period when my TV recordings have been so few.

Oh well, another mince pie anyone?


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