Christmas movies: sugar-coated, uplifting family fun. Light comedies with snowy landscapes where even the most cynical old misanthrope can’t help but learn the true meaning of the holiday. But beneath this veneer of presents and cheer, some of the best yuletide flicks in Hollywood history have been able to address some of the most pressing social issues facing modern society. Though they are often resolved quite unbelievably, the mere fact that these statements reach a wide audience give them value beyond the box office.
Perhaps the biggest Christmas movie of all time, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is broadcast constantly throughout the season and has been ranked among the best films ever made. It tells the story of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a reluctant businessman who clashes with the evil Mr. Henry Potter, an unrepentant slumlord who actively opposes George’s attempts to help the poor of his community with loans.
George’s charity and Potter’s avarice provide the film with a moral battleground between the man who would exploit the poor and the one who would stand in his way. Capra’s decidedly unsubtle directorial hand softens the considerable impact of this divisive issue, resolving it in his unique fashion when the community George had been so passionate about helping bands together and saves his business.
The Tim Allen vehicle The Santa Clause (1994) keeps its address more on the domestic side of things, examining divorce and its effect on the American family, particularly children. Allen plays Scott Calvin, an advertising executive at a toy company who accidentally kills Santa Claus (children’s movies in the 90’s were a bit dark) and is forced to take over as the big guy, much to the delight of his young son.
Unfortunately, Calvin’s ex-wife is now dating a psychiatrist, played by the always-wonderful Judge Reinhold, who sees Calvin’s eventual embracing of the Santa Claus “delusion” as a danger to the child’s well-being and has him removed from his father’s care. Of course, through the ‘Magic of Christmas’, Calvin actually does turn into Santa Claus and is able, with the help of some well-chosen gifts and a tinsel-toting elf SWAT team, to reconcile with his estranged wife and save Christmas for their son.
The moral centre of the film is the difficulty Allen’s character has in actually being a father. He certainly loves his son, but he is also obsessed with work which, evidently, created the deepest rift between him and his wife that eventually led to their divorce. At the office, he is shown to be charismatic and talented, being honoured at the company Christmas party for his outstanding work. At home, however, he is ignorant to his child’s wants and needs, a terrible cook, and an all-around disagreeable person towards his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. Calvin, as might be expected, is almost completely broken when he loses custody of his son, who represented the only truly meaningful relationship left in his life. The son, for his part, never stops believing in his father and this belief inspires Calvin to fully accept the role of Santa Claus, thus also embracing his most important role: being a parent.
Nora Ephron tagged her breakout hit, Sleepless in Seattle (1993) with the Christmastime farce Mixed Nuts (1994), starring Steve Martin. Though roundly panned by critics, Mixed Nuts used the holiday to address perhaps the darkest social issue of all: suicide. Martin runs Lifesavers, a failing suicide prevention hotline in Venice Beach, California, with the help of Mrs. Munchnik, a cranky old woman played by Madeline Kahn, and Catherine, a shy, girl-next-door type whose social awkwardness prevents her from telling Philip (Martin) that she is in love with him. Throw in a gun-toting ex-con in a Santa suit, his pregnant girlfriend (Juliette Lewis), Liev Schreiber in a dress, and Adam Sandler playing a ukulele, and you have Mixed Nuts. Martin’s talent for physical as well as verbal comedy is to be admired in this movie, as is Ephron’s deft handling of the film’s darker subject matter.
The spectre of death looms large over Mixed Nuts. Aside from the above-mentioned profession of the protagonists, Venice Beach has a serial killer on the loose, Mrs. Munchnik is in fact a widow, and Juliette Lewis shoots Martin’s landlord with a .38. The climax of the film comes when the ex-con in the Santa suit climbs a building and threatens to somehow jump off and shoot himself at the same time. Martin’s life-saving speech underscores the dark comedy of the movie, admitting that sometimes life definitely sucks but he and the other characters must learn to make the best of it, at least for the sake of his newborn child. A tired-out trope of a life’s philosophy, perhaps, but, at the same time, a brave confrontation of the human condition with all its ups and downs.
Competition at the box office around Christmas-time demands high-power stars and tried-and-true stories with maximum popular appeal. Within that tight framework, however, some of the best Christmas movies ever made have been able to dramatically address serious social issues. Exemplified by the exploitation of the poor in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, to divorce in The Santa Clause, and suicide in Nora Ephron’s Mixed Nuts, Hollywood has shown that there is no better time than the holidays for a movie with a message.