Peter Billingsley, right, confers with a department-store Santa (Jeff… (TNT )
Twenty-eight years ago, I was a producer on a film based in Tokyo when, just before the Thanksgiving holiday, I was called back to America to deal with a production emergency. The company I worked for was based in Marin County in Northern California, and there I found myself all alone on Thanksgiving Day. Wallowing in self-pity, I took myself off to one of the charming villages of Marin County, found a Country Kitchen-like restaurant, sat down to the Thanksgiving Special, and gave absolutely no thanks for the mendacious accountant who had run off with some of the production's funds.
After the pumpkin pie, I took a stroll and came across a movie house playing some film called "A Christmas Story." I had been in Japan for months and had not heard of this film, so I stopped to check out the poster and the lobby cards, those wonderful, now extinct, 11-by-14 cards that showed you enticing scenes from the movie. It looked like a not-horrible way to kill some of my forlorn holiday. I put down the cash for a single ticket and went in.
It was a happy decision. The film was not only the remedy for my blues, but I came out of the theater convinced that I had just seen the most honest, and thus best Christmas movie ever made -- an opinion from which I have never swayed.
It is an opinion that will be argued with. Let me state my case by considering two Christmas movies (and their messages) that many would elect to the pantheon of All-Time Best Christmas Movies: "A Christmas Carol," in all its various versions, and "Miracle on 34th Street."
"A Christmas Carol" is a neat ghost story and the chronicle of a life, two appealing story forms, but it is as a story of redemption, or "reclamation" as the Ghost of Christmas Past puts it, that is at the core of its Christmas message. But how true are redemptions in reality, how honest a portrayal of real life is "A Christmas Carol"?
We all want to believe that redemption is possible -- usually for others, rarely for ourselves -- and thus the power of the story, but how many people have you known who have truly been redeemed, who have gone from bad to good? Outside of alcoholics who are now sober and drug addicts who are now clean, of course. Haven't you ever had the suspicion that Scrooge may well have woke on Dec. 27 and thought, "Oh, humbug, what have I bloody done!?"
Dickens' story of redemption is no more than a hopeful wish, and not -- sadly -- a true portrayal of the reality of Christmas.
"Miracle on 34th Street" has at least two messages: That we have horribly commercialized Christmas and that, "Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to."
Let's take the second first. Believing in things when common sense tells you not to sounds good, even noble, and can make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But, despite what the filmmakers would like you to believe, it also serves remarkably and more realistically well as a definition of delusion or, worse, insanity.
As to the dark evil of the commercialization of Christmas, how honest a message is that for publicly traded corporate entities to be imparting? Do any of us really believe that Christmas is not about commerce? The economy of our nation depends on Christmas being about the commercial; the powers-that-be hold their collective economic-prediction-breaths from the very first frenetic minute of Black Friday (and now Deeply Gray Thursday) to the last frenetic shopping moments of Christmas Eve. To say that Christmas shouldn't be commercial is practically an utterance of economic terrorism.
These are just two examples of what is true for most Christmas movies: They portray the Christmas experience as we wish it to be but not as it is.
"A Christmas Story," on the other hand, is the true, honest portrayal of the Christmas experience because it is portrayed from the kid's point of view and not from the parents' as they leave the kid with family, or maybe even home alone to rush off to a big-box store.
For kids, Christmastime is a period of painfully sweet anticipation of the day when brightly wrapped presents under a tree will be unwrapped to reveal fervently hoped-for gifts that are given for no apparent reason.
The source of this largesse, kids are quite aware, is not really Santa Claus but their parents, those tall aliens in their house who are there to serve their needs of shelter and nourishment, to embarrass them and to be examples of weirdness they hope never to follow. Loving they are, and kids love them back, but truly, they are only there to serve.
Never do they better exercise the duties of their office than at Christmastime, as the "Old Man" in "A Christmas Story" shows when he takes true delight in watching Ralphie open the Red Ryder BB Gun -- the Holy Grail of Christmas presents -- that only he knew was Ralphie's deepest desire. This is why "A Christmas Story" is the best, most honest and truest Christmas film ever. It shows Christmas as it is, not as we may wish it to be.
Am I being too cynical? Well, if I am, it is not without a sentimental side, for I enjoy and tear up every year at "A Christmas Carol" and "Miracle on 34th Street" -- but then my hobby used to be crying at Kodak commercials.
"A Christmas Story," though, gives me great nostalgic delight and joy in the recognition of Truth -- and that's a gift I'll take any day.
'A Christmas Story'
When: 24-hour marathon begins at 8 p.m. Sat.