Few movies are as entrenched in the Christmas canon as A Christmas Carol, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. But one of these films is not like the other.
A Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are both redemption stories. Ebeneezer Scrooge and the Grinch are essentially tragic figures – miserly hermits who have closed themselves off from others, shielding themselves from pain but also from joy. For each, Christmas Eve marks their rock bottom; by Christmas morning, they’ve made amends, rejoined their communities, and resolved to help their fellow man (or Who, down in Whoville).
George Bailey, the hero of It’s a Wonderful Life, is not cut from the same cloth.
George Bailey, for those who haven’t met him, is the proprietor of the Building and Loan in the idyllic town of Bedford Falls. After his absentminded uncle Billy misplaces $8000 of money from the bank (risking jail time for them both), George becomes hysterical, lashing out at his family, contemplating suicide, and finally wishing he had never been born.
The film would have you believe that George is a generally amiable man, sent into a tailspin by circumstances beyond his control. I don’t buy that.
As far as George is concerned, his whole life has been a series of misfortunes, starting with the day he saved his younger brother from drowning – partially deafening himself in the process. Later in life, his father’s death “forces” George to take over the family business, putting his grandiose dreams on hold. He doesn’t get to travel and see the world – he doesn’t even get a proper honeymoon. When war breaks out, his brother goes overseas and comes back a hero; George can’t enlist due to his hearing.
Nonetheless, George Bailey is loved and respected in his community. He has a successful business, a loving wife, and four adorable children – yet he’s riddled with regrets, and he blames everyone else around him for his missed opportunities. This is a man who believes he could have done much better for himself, and sees his family – his brother, his late father, his beautiful wife and children – as millstones around his neck.
Throughout the course of the movie, he’s cruel to his wife and children more often than not. He goes on a tirade against a schoolteacher because his daughter catches a cold. He threatens his absentminded uncle with prison.
Remember this tirade?
This isn’t one bad day. This is a lifetime of repressed bitterness, finally bubbling to the surface. Re-watching It’s a Wonderful Life, I find myself feeling more sorry for George’s wife.
Say what you want about Ebeneezer Scrooge. He may not be a pleasant guy to interact with, but he is the primary victim of his own misanthropy.
Wonderful Life emulates A Christmas Carol by sending a spirit of Christmas to visit its hero. Scrooge, of course, gets three terrifying ghosts who show him his tortured past, the joys and sorrows he is missing out on, and the future that awaits him if he does not change his ways. George gets a bumbling angel named Clarence, who shows George how miserable his friends and family would be if he had never been born.
In this dystopian reality, Bedford Falls is now Pottersville, a slum controlled by evil banker Henry Potter. His wife Mary is a lonely spinster, apparently unable to secure a husband. His brother Harry is long dead – as is every soldier who the younger Bailey would have saved in the war. His uncle Billy is institutionalized, and his former tenants are living in squalor. And to top it all off, the pharmacist who gave George his first job is now a disgraced child killer (wow, this movie lays it on thick!)
Scrooge’s ghosts take him to task for his lifetime of callousness. He’s held accountable and commits to becoming a better person. George Bailey just has his narcissism validated.
The final moments of A Christmas Carol show a repentant Scrooge on a giving spree, elated at having received a second chance. It’s a Wonderful Life has the citizens of Bedford Falls showering George Bailey with cash.
A Christmas Carol (and its spiritual successor, How the Grinch Stole Christmas) are films about redemption. It’s a Wonderful Life is the stroking of one man’s ego.
Enter Bad Santa.
Terry Zwigoff’s black comedy tells the story of Willie T. Sokes, an alcoholic felon who robs mall safes while posing as the world’s worst department store Santa.
Willie’s life story isn’t detailed in flashbacks, but it’s safe to say his childhood was much worse than George Bailey’s. As an adult, Willie is vulgar and chronically depressed. As Santa Claus, he’s a surly drunk, traumatizing countless kids with crass remarks and profane tirades.
Willie’s turning point comes when he meets an odd kid named Thurman Merman. Thurman lives alone with his dementia-stricken grandmother. His mother is dead, his father incarcerated. He may or may not believe that Willie is the real Santa Claus (Willie, for his part, isn’t that convincing). When Willie hears of Thurman’s sad home life, he decides that the kid’s house is a perfect place to hide out.
Initially, Willie seems incapable of affection. As his partner-in-crime puts it, he’s an “emotional cripple.” But throughout the movie, he slowly and incrementally finds his heart opening.
Willie’s transformation comes by degrees. After ripping up Thurman’s Advent Calendar, he feels remorse and fixes it up with tape, replacing the chocolate with candy corn and Aspirin. When Thurman comes home with a black eye, Willie beats up his bullies. And with the help of his Santa-obsessed girlfriend, he even introduces some Christmas cheer into the Merman household.
To be sure, there’s no Grinch-on-Christmas-morning moment here; Willie’s moment of clarity comes when he beats up a bunch of pre-teens after an aborted suicide attempt. Redemption can come in the unlikeliest of places.
Bad Santa isn’t a typical raunch-comedy – it’s a story of broken people finding each other. This glimmer of hope amid the darkness, however dim, is what makes it a perfect film for the holiday season.
This Christmas, don’t give George Bailey any more of your time. Put Bad Santa in his rightful place alongside Scrooge, the Grinch, and every other lonely soul who found comfort at Christmas.
While we’re here, here are some other objectively correct Christmas movie opinions:
1. Love, Actually is delightful.
I have no time for the popular hatred of Love, Actually. It’s festive, it tugs the heartstrings, and it’s got a stellar British cast that includes Alan Rickman, Martin Freeman, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, and Bill Nighy as a roguish rock star promoting his mediocre Christmas single.
Yeah, some of the relationships don’t quite ring true – but this movie is about love in all its weird variations, and not all of the stories end happily. Moments of darkness (like the ill-fated infidelity of Rickman’s character) add a touch of realism, and balance out the fairy-tale endings of Firth and Grant’s characters.
2. Holiday Inn > White Christmas
If you’re looking for a golden oldie, you can do worse than one of Bing Crosby’s holiday films. For many people, 1954’s White Christmas is the go-to. But the better option would be Holiday Inn, the 1942 musical that featured the first performance of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” Co-starring Crosby and Fred Astaire, Holiday Inn is less cheesy than White Christmas, with better songs, a more substantial plot, and a dose of holiday melancholy.
If you’re not in the mood for a full-on musical, check out Crosby’s Oscar-winning performance in 1944’s Going My Way and its sequel The Bells of St. Mary’s. Crosby plays a kindly priest assigned to help out a struggling parishes. They’re both tearjerkers.
3. There are only two acceptable Scrooge movies.
Hollywood has produced countless variations on Dickens’s classic tale. The definitive adaptation is the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim, which is chilling and uplifting in equal measure. Scrooge’s revelations are truly heartbreaking, the ghosts are frightening, and the final scenes is one of hysterical joy.
There’s a colourized version, but don’t bother. The original black-and-white cinematography adds to the ghostliness of the story.
If you want an alternate take, the gold standard is Bill Murray’s Scrooged, which boasts satirical humour, over-the-top eighties ghosts, and a spooky score by Danny Elfman.