1. Rankin & Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) : There’s a reason this has become a perennial cult and popular classic. Hands down it is the best of the Rankin & Bass holiday shorts. Most of the team’s holiday specials, such as Year without a Santa Clause (below), have memorable moments, but don’t really add up to a great whole. Rudolph does. It’s a great (probably unintentional) weird mix.
A bigoted, misogynist, unlikeable, bitchy Santa, an equally unlikeable reindeer coach (with a baseball cap, no less), Rudolph’s jerk of a father, an abominable snow monster, a winged lion, straight out of apocalyptic literature, who oversees an island of dysfunctional toys, including a polka-dotted elephant, a Charlie-in-the-box, and a cowboy who rides an ostrich. On top of that is Burl Ives as a talking snowman, a too-cute girlfriend reindeer for our hero (with a bow atop her head), an elf who wants to be a dentist and a prospector by the name of Yukon Cornelius, who steals the entire show. Yukon “Even among misfits I’m a misfit” Cornelius has rightly become a cult figure all by himself. Oh, and then there’s Rudolph himself, who is understandably a bit bland in comparison but is the necessary catalyst for such a brew.
No amount of eggnog is going to help this fav seem traditionally orthodox. Max Fleischer did a more straightforward version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948), although Max’s style is still all over it.
2. Pee Wee’s Christmas at the Playhouse (1988) : Pee Wee Hermann’s holiday gathering at the playhouse with guest stars Dinah Shore, Charo (!!!), Little Richard, Grace Jones, K.D. Lang, Za Za Gabor, Magic Johnson, Cher, Frankie Avalon, Santa himself and the normal Playhouse gang.
Its almost as divine a time capsule as Paul Lynde’s Halloween Special. The only disappointment is not getting to see Pee Wee looking up the girls’ dresses with his mirrored shoes. Fans of the Playhouse will walk away beaming.
3. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964): You know we had to include this one. Before Pia Zadora had her ten seconds of fame (10 seconds too long), she “starred” in a film so abysmal, so bad, so weird that only the bravest can get through it. Try to watch the MS3TK version, it almost makes it bearable.
4. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974): Rankin and Bass again, but this one doesn’t altogether work (as mentioned above). We could care less about Santa, the elves, or the reindeer, BUT, the sight of Mr. Heat Miser, son of Mother Nature, doing a jig in the pit of hell makes it worth the weird trip! The Rankin and Bass Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970), with Fred Astaire, a penguin sidekick for St. Nick and Winter Warlock would round out a near perfect Christmas trilogy.
5. Any of the South Park Christmas specials, especially if they feature a talking, singing turd. Watch those with the gang’s vicious, dead-on satire of Mel Gibson’s vehemently anti-Christmas Passion of the Christ (2004) .
6. Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) . No, Tim did not direct it, so I am not going to refer to it as “his”. It actually deserves all the acclaim it received. The jazz scene with Boogey recalls the spirit of Cab Calloway.
7. Batman Returns (1992) . The best of all the Batman movies, including Christopher Nolan’s. Tim did direct this one. It begins and ends with an otherworldy Christmas. Michelle Pfeiffer sizzles as Selina. Danny Devito’s Christ-like Penguin evokes empathy no matter what he does, and Keaton gives a nuanced performance as the angst-ridden Bruce Wayne (Bale’s Wayne is obvious in comparison). This movie was so genuinely disturbing that it toppled the Happy Meal Deal. Now that is in the Christmas spirit.
* A few not so odd, but essential Holiday Favs:
The Gathering (1977) may well be the most poignant of Holiday films. Ed Asner, dying of a disease, reflects on his life, realizing how he has alienated his family and wants to have a Christmas gathering before the inevitable. Ex-wife Maureen Stapleton has her hands full healing the hurt children without revealing to them the state of Asner’s health condition. Out-of-print, for some insane reason.
Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). The original, of course. The Peanuts became alarmingly tiresome and repetitive very quickly, but this and It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown are certifiable classics. “Let’s catch snowflakes on our tongue.”
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). Chuck Jones and Boris Karloff … ’nuff said. Those responsible for the recent movie version with Jim Carrey truly deserve a spot in Mr. Heat Miser’s fiery pit.
A Christmas Carol (1984) with George C. Scott, directed by Clive Donner. No, it’s not the equal of the Alastair Sim classic (1951), but it’s beautifully close and compliments, rather than compares to Sim. Scott is very impressive, as is the grossly underrated David Warner. Forget the completely unnecessary, abominable Bob Zemeckis version with Jim Carrey. Bob, the wonder boy genius of the 80’s, has definitely lost it.
For an unintentionally hilarious yuletide fav of years past, check out the bible pic, The Robe (1953). Richard Burton does the worst acting of his career (which is saying a hell of a lot) when he delivers the line ” Were you… Out There?” Another great scene is when Victor Mature (who probably had Hollywood’s most beautiful tits and bares them throughout the film) asks Judas, ” Who are you? ” Judas answers, “My name… Is Judas!” Thunder roars, serving up the perfect over the top punctuation.
Another great example of Biblical Hollywood cheese would be DeMille’s silent King of Kings (1927), when Magdalen runs to her zebra drawn chariot, chasing after her lover, Judas (!) and screams (in titles) “Nubian Slaves, harness my zebras!”
For a real vintage oddity, try Christmas Past-Vintage Holiday Films, a compilation that includes Thomas Edison’s A Winter Straw Ride (1906) and A Christmas Accident (1912), along with two doses of charmingly Victorian Christmas manna from D.W. Griffith: A Trap for Santa (1909) and The Adventures of the Wrong Santa Claus (1914). Also, there’s Santa Claus vs. Cupid (1915), the first screen adaptation of A Christmas Carol (1910), and The Night Before Christmas (1905) on this essential collection.
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