Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell perform “Silver Bells” in
Sidney Lanfield and Frank Tashlin’s The Lemon Drop Kid.
Scott: The first inkling that Christmas was not a holiday for Hebrews came from a neighbor kid, the fine Aryan specimen Timothy Murphy: “My Uncle Roy says Jews celebrate Christmas by staying home and counting their money.” In truth, if I had Roy’s money — at least the chunk that wasn’t deposited at Foremost Liquors — I’d have thrown my own stash away.
Matthew: So much for peace on Earth — them’s fighting words, Mr. Marks. How can you call a Murphy an Aryan? Don’t you remember The Commitments? “The Irish are the blacks of Europe.” That’s pretty much the opposite of Ayran. But perhaps you were being facetious, in which case I’ll adopt a more conciliatory approach. You can’t really blame Kid Murphy: your encounter came years before Saturday Night Live gave us the lovely holiday jingle “Christmastime for the Jews,” which finally shed some light on what all you unbaptized folk did with your December 25: They can finally see King Kong without waiting in line / They can eat in Chinatown and drink their sweet-ass wine!
Scott Marks: "I say that Christmas is for everyone — a truly human holiday."
Movies and Chinese food! Of course, a reference like that sends the memory train roaring back to 1983’s A Christmas Story, wherein the (presumably but not evidently) Christian family is forced to abandon the traditional turkey dinner in favor of “Chinese turkey” (i.e., duck) at the Chop Suey Palace Company, complete with caroling waiters who sing “Deck the Halls With Boughs of Horry.” It’s an odd but lovely moment, and it gives the lie to your claim that Christmas is not a holiday for Hebrews. I say that Christmas is for everyone — a truly human holiday. And if you want to lay out a few of your favorite Christmas movies for inspection, I’ll make my case.
Matthew Lickona: "The great magic of Oz is the promise of a brighter, more vivid reality than our everyday lives."
Scott: Fine. Though I will admit at the outset that my perspective here is not entirely that of an outsider. My family’s hands-off approach to Christmas was further hammered home when Mom was asked to erect a colorfully decorated dead tree in our living room, similar to the one parked in Aunt Mimi and Uncle Andy’s picture window. (The livid look that crossed Mom’s face indicated she would rather pay retail for my Hanukkah gifts.) Dad’s sister Mimi married outside the faith, and along with her husband Andy Galuzzi, turned their home into a veritable Christmas wonderland. Her intermarrying afforded me the best of both worlds: eight days of unparalleled Hanukkah gelt, and Christmas presents around the Galuzzis’ tree!
Author Scott Marks, age 9, trying desperately to assimilate. "The Rogers Park neighborhood that I grew up in had more synagogues than it did 7-Elevens and McDonald’s combined."
Matthew: See? You’re already tracking with me! The sweet purity of your childhood desire for loot, to be lavished with love from all sides, to have your every wish come true. It’s the hope for heaven. A grump sees A Christmas Story and thinks, Wow, they make it all the way through without mentioning Jesus or even going to church — some Christmas movie. But that’s not what the film is about, because it’s a child’s story, and Christmas for a child is about what is tangible. A child’s heart longs not for heaven, but a Red Ryder air rifle, the very gift that it would take a miracle to obtain.
"Hardly the stuff mistletoe and holly is made of."
Scott: Sounds like you’ve been hitting the eggnog early this year. But let’s continue. Having long since become an Easter staple, the first movie I came to associate with Christmas was 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Between 1959 and 1962, and in 1964 (they sat 1963 out, fearing that a nation mourning a presidential assassination was not yet ready for Munchkins), CBS aired the impervious curiosity every year on a Sunday evening sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Grandma Eva and Bill “Pa” Marks shared a spacious Oak Park home, and one Sunday a month we’d make the 20-mile trek for a visit.
Bing Crosby, Virginia Dale, Marjorie Reynolds, and Fred Astaire in Mark Sandrich’s Holiday Inn, the first of three movies to include Bing Crosby chirping “White Christmas.”
The appearance of those accursed flying monkeys on Pa’s ancient black-and-white Philco forced little Scooter (I’d like to hear what your grandparents nicknamed you) to take shelter either behind Grandma’s enormous wingback chair, or amid the rows of sequential bubble lights — later found lethal when curious tots ingested their toxic content — strung ’round the welcoming tree.
What chances did a romance between a priest and a nun have of seeing the arc-light of day ?
Matthew: Gonna make me work for this one, aren’t you? But I’m ready for you: The great magic of Oz is the promise of a brighter, more vivid reality than our everyday lives: the Tin Man, Scarecrow, etc. are all people in Dorothy’s drab Kansas life, but gussied up and made wonderful and significant. “A brighter, more vivid reality” is a pretty good description of Christmas morning — all the bright wrapping paper and gift-giving and goodwill and time off and God himself taking flesh and dwelling among us. That last bit, the Incarnation — well, that’s what makes every drab person on Earth gussied up and more significant. Now that God has become Man, we can become adopted sons and daughters of God!
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. You’d swear Jesus hired a second-unit camera crew to document His every move.
While I’m at it, isn’t the Wizard a pretty good image of the Old Testament God — terrifying, all-powerful, full of bizarre commandments? And isn’t the Man Behind the Curtain a pretty good image of the New Testament Christ — loving, humanly scaled, full of encouragement and gift-giving? Speaking of gift-giving, isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Hey, how about the Wizard as Santa? Not quite what you believed him to be, but still a powerful force for gladness and joy.
Scott: The one film that religiously finds a home in my DVD tray come Christmas morn is 1980’s Raging Bull, directed by Martin Scorsese. I first saw it at the Willow Creek Theatre on December 24, 1980. It appeared like an angel, in black-and-white, alone, on a single screen. In the words of a certain taxi driver, “They cannot touch it.”
The Willow Creek was one of those futuristic-looking ’60s showplaces, a black box with an expansive curved CinemaScope screen and pitch-perfect acoustics; the flashbulbs popping in the rear-surround channels never sounded better. It appeared to have been designed by the same architectural team responsible for Mission Valley’s late, lamented Cinema 21. My fellow Scorsese-acolyte Rick and I had just finished gorging ourselves on one of his mother’s annual 90-course festival meals. Every year, my adoptive mother, Audrey, saw to it that her “boys” ate like the commies were in the driveway. Rick’s sports-addicted brother, Ron — the movie gene apparently skipped a generation — decided to favor us with a rare in-theater appearance, (as did six other paying customers).
Ron’s expectations of a sports epic were soon quashed; Marty was more concerned with what goes on outside the ring than in. True to his text, Rick and I emerged, and as if summoned by the Pharisees, with eyes wide open. A call to Rick in search of further memories provided this warm and fuzzy chestnut: “It was the last time my brother and I ever smoked pot together.”
Another Norman Rockwell painting to add crackle to the Christmas pyre.
Matthew: Okay, you win on this one. All I got is the importance of tradition and ritual in life. Me, I like to start Christmas morning with homemade brioche. But to each his own. Raging Bull is a story of life gone sour, of gifts overlooked because of a cramped soul. Jake can’t see the good thing he has in his wife because he’s afraid she’s faithless — you know, like he was with his previous wife — and it poisons everything. It’s an attitude perhaps best summed up when [SPOILER] he smashes the championship belt in order to get at the jewels. His vision is so narrowed that he can’t see the precious thing in front of him. If anything, he’s the sort of character ripe for a Christmas redemption.
Scott: You want a character ripe for Christmas redemption? Try the Lemon Drop Kid, a desperate hustler who dreams up a scheme to open a home for old ladies and then dump ’em on the street come Christmas day. Best of all, he’s played by Bob “For Christmas” Hope. For decades, America’s most enduring comedian spent his holidays overseas selflessly entertaining our troops, only to bring filmed evidence of his munificence back to NBC where it could be spun into ratings gold. As a child, I ran from The Bob Hope Christmas Specials. Now I run to them. Hope is an acquired taste. For every legitimately funny comedy he turned out in his artistic glory days on the Paramount backlot, there are mile-high stacks of idiot cards, testimony to his indolent, post-’60s television work. They sit gathering dust in Old Ski Nose’s joke vault, with nary an intentionally funny barb scrawled across one of them.
Hope’s greatest contributions to movie comedy were hatched under Frank Tashlin’s watch. A former Looney Tunes animator and future guru to Jerry Lewis, Tashlin seldom seemed to discriminate between characters made of flesh and blood and those drawn of pen and ink. The Bob Hope vehicle The Lemon Drop Kid was the director’s first stab at a live-action “cinematoon.”
Twentieth Century Fox was not pleased with contract director Sidney Lanfield’s dailies, so they brought duffer Tash on board to bat cleanup. Lanfield received sole screen credit, but it was Tashlin who directed a good one-third of the film. The Lemon Drop Kid introduced Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’s holiday classic, “Silver Bells.” With all the subsequent versions Xeroxed for Hope’s numerous televised extravaganzas, none compare to this thriftless rendition.
Oddly enough, the film was not part of Paramount’s 1950 Christmas package. (It was released in March of 1951.) After Bing Crosby’s recording of “Silver Bells” set the charts on fire in December of 1950, Paramount reassembled the cast and crew to stage a more elaborate filming of the musical number.
Hope, in full Santa regalia, and alongside leading lady (and offscreen paramour) Marilyn Maxwell, stroll arm-in-arm crooning his signature Christmas tune, through art directors Hal Pereira and Franz Bachelin’s meticulous soundstage simulation of a bustling Manhattan snowscape. For its climax, a heavenly chorus kicks in, and the music rises to a crescendo as the crane elevates the camera within inches of piercing the studio roof. The farther back we get, the more muffled the city’s sounds become. Music and picture gently entwine as a dissolve reveals a miniature cityscape blanketed by white. When it comes to snow, Tashlin’s man-made dusting is the closest this lapsed-Midwesterner will ever get to feeling sentimental effusion.
Matthew: First, let me note a developing theme: the Chinese and Christmas. It bolsters my case: even back in 1950, when Chinese-Americans were more Other than they are today, Christmas was for everyone. Hope drives this home as he sings, now to a German Santa Claus, now to an Irish cop, and now to a couple of Chinese kids. The kids are grinning, just as delighted as anyone to be part of the throng hearing those silver bells signaling Christmastime in the city. And why? Because the song is about shopping, the great joyous orgy of stuff — “This is Santa’s big scene.”
But wait — those silver bells are not strung overhead. They’re “on every streetcorner” — being rung by Santas who are begging, not Santas who are doling out goodies. Hope himself is such a Santa, as are all of his downmarket pals. Almost as delightful as the song itself was the montage that preceded it — one Santa cheating in a dice game as he tries to raise funds, another crying, “Let’s put some dough in the kitty!” Christmas, for all its rampant consumerism, is at its very best when it works to bring good news to the poor and downtrodden. And best of all, it turns out that even Santa can use a little Christmas miracle. I won’t say more for fearing of spoiling things, but I will say that it is my absolute favorite use of the Shopping Days ’Til Christmas countdown. I cannot thank you enough for turning me on to this.
Scott: If ever there was a case to sue a movie studio for false advertising, it’s 1944’s Christmas Holiday. Cute and perky songstress Deanna Durbin stars opposite hoofer Gene Kelly’s Cheshire grin. But instead of a light, frothy studio musical, audiences were treated to a rare holiday noir. Dave Kehr referred to it as “a must for anyone who has suffered through (Durbin’s) One Hundred Men and a Girl.”
Directed by noir mainstay Robert Siodmak, Christmas Holiday is loosely based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham, retooled for the movies to include heaps of World War II propaganda by screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (who a few years earlier had a hand in Citizen Kane). Kelly plays a bow-tied psycho-killer whose prison break coincides with the holidays. Told in intricate flashback structure, the story relates how cabaret singer Durbin recruits the aid of a serviceman passing through New Orleans (Dean Harens, barely registering on screen) to help thwart her husband Kelly’s revenge-fueled break. Hardly the stuff mistletoe and holly is made of.
There is one astounding moment of cinematic splendor that demands your attention. The lovers sit amidst a crowded symphony hall, awaiting a performance of selections from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. The conductor raises his baton, and with four jump cuts, we are rapidly drawn into the performance. But edit #5 whisks the audience to an intimate restaurant where the bandleader is kicking off a romantic violin rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Always.” The startling leap causes a brief displacement in your seat — reminiscent of Kubrick monkeying around with that bone and a spacecraft — and it’s one that’s sure to remind you what’s on screen is far tastier than a leftover hunk of stollen.
Matthew: Movie-wise, yeah, that switch to the restaurant band is wonderful. Christmas-wise, what demands your attention is the churchgoing. Soldier Harens gets roped into visiting a brothel on Christmas Eve, but when he shows himself a decent sort of chap, one of the girls asks if he’ll take her to Midnight Mass. It’s a full-on (and dragged-out) smells-and-bells routine, but set against all that solemn pomp is Durbin’s raw emotion; it isn’t long before she’s sobbing in her pew. “I didn’t cry for the reason you think,” she tells him later. “Those people were sharing something — feelings, praying together. I’ve been alone as long as I can remember.” She starts the film as an outcast, covered in shame. She ends — well, Christmas is for everyone, even whores doing penance for past sins.
Scott: What’s the quickest way to reduce an audience to tears? Kill a dog! Boys Town climaxed with nauseating child star Bobs Watson practically becoming a hood ornament. When it came time for a formulaic sequel, the screenwriters didn’t expect star players Spencer Tracy or Mickey Rooney to take a dive. The task fell to tail-wagging little Bohunk, who wound up taking one for the team, crushed to death under the wheels of a big rig. And were the Division of Family and Children’s Services at work in 1957, the release of Old Yeller would surely have found Walt Disney incarcerated for child endangerment.
Maybe it’s domesticated animal abuse in general that gets my goat. Take a pinking shears to an Achilles tendon on screen, and I’ll lead the cheers, but the second Holly boots poor-slob-without-a-name “Cat” from the cab at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, my face grows cold and I start bawling. Having read “A Christmas Memory” —Truman Capote’s short, autobiographical reminiscence of Christmases spent with a charming, childlike cousin in rural Alabama — before seeing the movie, I was prepared. I hunkered down in my seat, fully dreading the moment poor old rat terrier Queenie would buy the farm and the waterworks in my tear ducts would spout.
A Christmas Memory, the Emmy Award–winning short film originally made for ABC, joined two other Capote tele-adaptations to form the theatrical release, Trilogy (1969). Capote wrote — and, in the case of A Christmas Memory, narrated — the screenplays, and Frank Perry (Diary of a Mad Housewife, Rancho Deluxe) directed. Donnie Melvin is the author’s young, on-screen counterpart Buddy, but whatever character insight there is to be found must surely be credited to the tender force of Capote’s voice-over.
Geraldine Page stars as cousin Sook, a mannered eccentric whose free-spirited Southern charm could, in less capable hands, just as easily have played like one of Auntie Mame’s poor relations. Watching Page’s face is like auditing a master class on pathos; one false gesture or forced twitch and she’d find herself slipping into a steaming vat of Fried Green Tomatoes. But instead of cloning Granny Clampett, Page mines Sook’s beauty, joy, strength, and laughter, managing to cram more emotions into a 30-minute tele-drama than you’re likely to find in a hundred features combined.
I wore the oxides off my old VHS copy, and every year I check Amazon in hopes of a spruced-up DVD for the holidays. You can check out Kensington Video’s VHS tape or, in a fit of sheer desperation, hunt down the black-and-white dupe floating around YouTube.
Matthew: Oh, my goodness. Speaking of traditions, I may have to sit the clan down for this one every Christmas Eve from here on out — even if we have to gather ’round the YouTube. Sook, as Capote notes, is something of a child herself. But instead of her oddity rendering her simple, it instead keeps her pure. And what is more, it makes her supremely protective of Buddy’s purity. Not in the moralistic sense — she’s not above giving him a taste of whiskey to celebrate — but in the sense of preserving his wonder, his joy, his sweet hope in the face of poverty’s ordinary sorrow. Wonder: the adventure of scavenging pecans and buying whiskey for the fruitcake from Ha-Ha, the delight she takes in his retellings of movie plots. Joy: the wild extravagance of buying a pound and a half of candied pineapple at 50 cents a pound, the clamor of banging the house awake on Christmas morning. Hope: the dream of a bicycle, the possibility of winning the coffee-naming contest. It’s pure enough to break your heart.
What makes Sook sad? To see Buddy growing up. Because she knows what new kinds of sorrow that will bring. She is on the right side of every line, protecting instead of smothering, indulging instead of spoiling, inspiring instead of pushing. She is the keeper of his childhood.
So much about Christmas really does make it a children’s holiday, starting with the birth of a Child that makes us children of God. Is it any wonder that so many of its traditions are aimed at children? (As opposed to, say, Thanksgiving, which celebrates by eating dinner.) And I think this very simple story gets at so much of what Christmas can give to a child. To childhood.
Scott: As a film for all seasons — one that features musical numbers celebrating everything from Christmas to the 4th of July — 1942’s Holiday Inn was the first (and finest) of three movies to include Bing Crosby chirping “White Christmas.” The star also groans Irving Berlin’s holiday anthem in Blue Skies (1946), and the biggest-selling music single of all time (100 million copies) earned title status for the 1954 remake, White Christmas.
Crosby costars with Fred Astaire as one member of a song-and-dance team determined to step away from a routine that finds them performing year-round. It’s Der Bingle’s idea to relocate the show to an isolated farm in Connecticut and only work the 15 or so days marked in red on the calendar. If remade today, musical tributes to Kwanzaa and Hanukkah would be de rigueur, and the regrettable “Abraham” number, which B-B-Bing b-b-belts in b-b-blackface to “honor” Lincoln’s Birthday, would be replaced by politically correct tunes showcasing nonexistent but nevertheless profitable “Hallmark Holidays,” like Boss’s Day, or Sweetest Day.
Director Mark Sand-rich, veteran of five Astaire/Rogers musicals, keeps the down-time between numbers to a minimum. The film’s biggest donut hole is leading lady Marjorie Reynolds, whose affections vacillate between Crosby and Astaire. Of the 71 films IMDb credits to Reynolds, only a handful (Ministry of Fear, Up in Mabel’s Room, Monsieur Beaucaire) ring a bell. The actress can’t carry a tune (her singing voice was dubbed by Martha Mears), and she’s no match (who was?) for Astaire when it comes to shaking her tootsies.
Please allow me to direct your attention to 1:34:39 on your DVD counter for an intimate, behind-the-scenes glimpse of a dream factory at work. While I never again want to spend a day with shoes soaked frozen on account of snow, there is nothing quite so lovely as watching a Tinsel Town flurry, particularly one filmed on black-and-white stock. Word of the Inn’s success quickly travels west, and before long, Reynolds is on a Paramount soundstage lensing the big-screen adaptation. For a brief moment, we’re allowed a self-reflexive look at movie magic as our star recreates a sentimental scene: her return from a success in pictures to the desolate barn that sparked her fame.
The makeup men disperse, “Action!” is called, and Cinderella’s horse-drawn carriage whisks the star from Bronson and Melrose to a snow-covered entertainment-venue/theme-restaurant situated somewhere back East. The camera pulls back to reveal a sky-high ceiling, with Ivory Laundry Flakes — shaken lightly from its mechanized rafters — landing on the cast and crew below. The audience watching is asked to imagine that the blizzard conditions they witnessed back at Holiday Inn were an act of God, and what we now see inside Hollywood Inn is a gifted craftsman’s tribute to nature’s glorious handiwork. Both scenarios are illusory, and while the reveal doesn’t last for more than a minute, the thought of cameras filming cameras filming an indoor snowstorm adds the surrealistic touch of a funhouse mirror, peeling back layers to reveal moviedom’s elusive and ever-glorious artistry.
Matthew: “Dream factory” is right. Let me pull away from praising Oz’s Man Behind the Curtain reveal to critique the peek we get here. I love Holiday Inn, and the kids remember the songs and dancing more than anything else, but that scene is a layered and sophisticated move. I mean, Bing enters singing “White Christmas” on a movie set designed to look like the place where he first sang it, to the girl he first sang it to, while she’s playing the part of the girl he first sang it to. That’s about as self-conscious as it gets. The longer I can keep my kids from contemplating the orchestration of their Christmas joy — as opposed to the simple experience of it — the better. There’s a reason we hide the wrapping paper as well as the presents.
Scott: Trivia experts will instantly peg Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) as the title splashed across the Radio City Music Hall marquee while Michael Corleone and his future bride, Kay, do their Christmas shopping in The Godfather. For me, McCarey’s Bells has more in common with Coppola’s second installment, inasmuch as both films are rare examples of sequels that surpass their illustrious precursors. It’s an even more infrequent instance of a sequel penned before its original, and released by another studio!
In order for Paramount to loan out the services of Bing Crosby, RKO had to first consent to McCarey’s writing and directing a star vehicle based on the same character for their neighboring studio. Bing plays Father Chuck, who, long before joining the Roman Catholic order, took an active interest in sports, song, and dames. Metropolitan Opera great Risë Stevens adds a touch of class, as well as a hint of virility, by appearing as one of Father Chuck’s former love interests. Film scholars take note: The Bells of St. Mary’s falls between Going My Way and Tashlin’s Say One for Me, to form Crosby’s “Showbiz Priest” trilogy. How’s that for a master’s thesis waiting to happen?
It’s pure hokum, but in this case, it’s hokum drawn from the hand of one of cinema’s true humanists. What chances did a romance between a priest and a nun have of seeing the arc-light of day in a town where couples could only occupy a bed together if one of their feet was firmly planted on the floor? Only Leo McCarey (Duck Soup, Ruggles of Red Gap, Make Way for Tomorrow) could have pulled a love story of this sinful magnitude past the ever-vigilant eyes of the Hays Office. Ingrid Bergman signed opposite Crosby to play the screen’s most alluring nun. McCarey knew just the trick to pull it off: assign Sister Ingrid a faint cough 20 minutes in that winds up full-tubercular by the fade-out. Not to spoil it, but at the time, there was no way this subject matter could have possibly ended in anything but auditorium floors littered with soaked Kleenex.
Matthew: For a movie starring a priest and a nun, there is amazingly little talk of Jesus. Maybe that’s for the best: He’s a tough character to include, especially when he’s not the star. But there is a Christmas pageant rehearsal, and anyone who complains about Christians denying the realities of the world should recall that we have our kids do a play every year about an unwed mother and a fiancé who’s getting ready to dump her for fooling around on him. I know the angels and the wise men sometimes obscure it, but there’s a mysterious pregnancy at the heart of Christmas. I don’t harp on it — like Sook, I’m all for preserving purity — but if you’re going to subscribe to Christianity, there are some things that you can’t avoid.
Oh, and I’ll match your movie trivia bit: The Bells of St. Mary’s is on the marquee in Bedford Falls as George Bailey runs down the street wishing folks a merry Christmas in It’s A Wonderful Life.
Scott: Speaking of subscribing to a faith: someone once asked about my biggest regret to date, and without batting an eye, I shot back, “Hebrew school.” Admittedly, much of what the rabbis taught, as far as traditions and customs go, is still rattling around inside my brain. After having spent six hours behind a public-school desk, the thought of killing another two in a classroom at Ezras Israel didn’t sit well. I have Rabbi Lichstein to thank for my ability to read Hebrew, but God forbid the great explainer could have turned momentary cryptographer to clue his homeroom in on a little translation. “Keep still!” he would bark. “God understands what you’re saying so you don’t have to.”
The biggest mitigating circumstance was an ill-fated screening of a 16mm dye-transfer Technicolor print of Munster, Go Home!, the centerpiece of the congregation’s annual Purim carnival. Rabbi Lichstein may have been well versed in God’s commandments, but when it came to putting on a show, his actions were as revolting to me as washing down a slab of pork-loin ribs with a glass of buttermilk was to him. The lights in the Beth Hamedrash dimmed, and the image that hit the screen was both upside down, backwards, and, as if it mattered, out of focus. Master tummler that he was, Rabbi Lichstein tried to quiet the din of rebellious youngsters with, “Looks like Haman [world-class anti-Semitic, royal vizier to King Ahasuerus, and all-around Purim meanie] got inside the projector!” Not only did the show not go on, he refused to refund the charitable canned goods donated in exchange for admission!
For those in his class who had any intention of one day going full Jew, Rabbi Lichstein briefly touched upon the topic of the 39 Melachot. There are 39 “deliberate activities” listed in the owner’s manual that Jewish law prohibits its arch-orthodox wing from partaking in between Friday’s close of day and when the sun dips below the horizon on Saturday evening. During that 24-hour period, Jews are basically allowed to wake up, get dressed, eat, walk to synagogue for morning prayer, and spend the rest of the day kibitzing amongst themselves. It only sounds like home detention, with tightly wrapped tefillin replacing ankle bracelets. If anything, the laws are intended to provide the devout a festive respite, free of toil, with every waking moment spent in His service.
The Rogers Park neighborhood that I grew up in had more synagogues than it did 7-Elevens and McDonald’s combined. Every Saturday morning, I gazed down from my third-floor window at the parade of Hasidim that lined the sidewalk of Lunt Avenue. I had my own Saturday-morning TV prayer ritual that coincided with that of my Landsmen below. According to my calculations, their procession would coincide with the start of Flash Gordon at 7:00 a.m. Things would die down by the time The Three Stooges hit the airwaves at 8:00 a.m, only to pick up again at noon: temple let out just as goy-wonder Dick Clark began ushering in that week’s installment of American Bandstand.
It was the first time religious hypocrisy appeared on my radar. (I later learned that Rabbi Jordani, a high-ranking macher within the shul, made untoward advances towards the blonde shikse wife of the Shabbos goy, but that’s a megillah of another color.) According to the 39 Melachot, driving an automobile is steng verboten on Shabbat. One morning, while breaking from tradition and accompanying mom on her weekly grocery-store pilgrimage, I noticed a “Chosen” family being careful not to slam their tsi-tsis in the car door while exiting. It seems this devout group decided to park a few blocks away from the synagogue to give the impression that they had walked from home. Admittedly, this observation was taken from the point-of-view of a passerby in a car, and one who, incidentally, never signed on for any of this mishigas. The 39 Melachot also includes a rider barring one from taking in a Shabbas matinee, a deal breaker if ever there was one. Apart from getting cool gifts in the event of a Bar Mitzvah, I have never for a second drank from the Mogen David–filled cup of organized religion.
I think of this blinding moment of confirmation each year when Frosty the Snowman and full-scale plastic replicas of Santa with a lightbulb in his hollow belly begin popping up on porches. I’m not going play the “Jews for Jesus” card, but if the day is set aside to commemorate His birth, what’s with all this talk of Donner and Blitzen, and eaves dripping with strings of mini Italian-lightbulb icicles? Coming from a devout cinephile, who hath spent every second of his life’s calling in the service of celluloid, I never could cotton to this part-time approach, particularly when it comes to the man upstairs. If Jesus Christ is indeed the reason for the season, my Christmas picks had to include at least one cinematic telling of His life.
It takes nearly 200 of the film’s 205 minute running time for John Wayne to make his infamous cameo in The Greatest Story Ever Told. The Duke’s starched delivery of his one and only line (“Truly this man was the Son of God”) remains the sole reason to subject yourself to George Stevens’s pious snoozer. (Though I’d sit through it 100 times before ever again stepping into Mel Gibson’s The Zombification of the Christ.) Betting men would lay million-to-one odds that Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ would end the show. As much as I admire Marty’s alternate take on spirituality, when all is said and done, it amounts to little more than a handful of New Testament bubba meises reverentially transcribed by The Master.
I almost went with Jeffrey Hunter in Nicholas Ray’s stunning King of Kings (aka I Was a Teenage Jesus), but as that mock title suggests, the film doesn’t do much to put the holy in Hollywood. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, an epic, cinéma vérité portrait of the life of Christ, told from the point of view of a devout Marxist and avowed atheist, takes home first prize. Pasolini brings us so close to the subject, at times you’d swear Jesus hired a second-unit camera crew to document His every move.
With hand-held cinematography currently a dominating mode of visual expression, directors in search of immediacy generally start by tossing their tripods out the window in favor of the economical, lightweight (in every sense of the word) “palsy-cam” approach. In The Gospel, documentary realism and stylistic intervention (the Negro spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is heard softly in the background as Mary gives birth) converge to form a stark, fly-on-the-wall sense of intimacy.
The Gospel is a revolutionary biblical epic told by a nonpracticing Catholic, who, by his own admission, has a tendency “always to see something sacred, and mythic, and epic in everything, even the most humdrum, simple, banal objects and events.” The illusion of reality was not enough for Pasolini, who was pained to discover that he’d be forced to resort to movie trickery upon learning that, even under the influence of hypnosis, his lead actor could not walk on water.
Matthew: “Something sacred, and mythic, and epic in everything…” We’re right back to The Wizard of Oz — the more vivid reality behind everyday things. Right back to the notion that the Incarnation lends an infinite significance to human activity. And if an atheist-Marxist gets that telling the story of Jesus’ life (including His birth) is a way to point to that sacred, mythic character, well, I think I can rest my case. Christmas is for everyone. Merry Christmas!