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What makes a good Christmas movie

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE")

HENRY TRAVERS: (As Clarence Odbody) You see, George? You really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In perhaps the most famous holiday movie ever made, it only took one night - Christmas Eve - for George Bailey to come to that realization.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE")

TODD KARNS: (As Harry Bailey) A toast to my big brother George, the richest man in town.

DETROW: It took "It's A Wonderful Life" a little longer than that, though, to become the Christmas classic it is today. In poll after poll, it shows up as the greatest Christmas film of all time. But best-of lists were not on director Frank Capra's mind when he made it.

EMILY ST JAMES: This movie came out in 1946, which, if you know your American history, is one year after the end of World War II.

DETROW: Emily St. James is a writer and culture critic. She says that Capra, who went overseas to make documentaries for the war effort, and star Jimmy Stewart, who flew combat missions during the war - they made a movie that reflected the emotional aftermath of World War II.

ST JAMES: It's a product of the United States in, like, the five years after World War II, when there is this, like, comprehension of, the war needed to be won. Fascism needed to be defeated. The Nazis need to be defeated. But there's been this great cost in terms of lives, in terms of, like, the people who survived, the trauma and terrible things they'd been through. And how do we sort of grapple with all of that?

DETROW: St. James says that subtext informs a story that goes to some very dark and despairing places.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE")

TRAVERS: (As Clarence Odbody) Your brother, Harry Bailey, broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of 9.

JIMMY STEWART: (As George Bailey) That's a lie. Harry Bailey went to war. He got the Congressional Medal of Honor. He saved the lives of every man on that transport.

TRAVERS: (As Clarence Odbody) Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn't there to save them because you weren't there to save Harry.

DETROW: When the film came out in 1946, it wasn't immediately hailed as a classic. Despite several Oscar nominations, it just wasn't that popular with audiences.

ST JAMES: The movie does disappoint. It doesn't quite make as much money as everybody thought it would. It sort of pales in comparison to other movies of the era, and then it kind of was forgotten about.

DETROW: That's until fate threw in a plot twist. The film entered the public domain in the 1970s.

ST JAMES: Local TV stations believed this to be a movie they can show for free because it's in the public domain, so they start doing that. And stations are showing it once a day, twice a day, all in the lead up to Christmas.

DETROW: This went on for at least 20 years until stations lost those rights to air it so frequently. But by then, "It's A Wonderful Life" was established as a beloved Christmas tradition for generations of viewers. Emily St. James says the film does deserve that reputation.

ST JAMES: It is worthwhile, especially at this time of year, to step back and look at the many good things in your life and to appreciate them and to even feel sort of a love toward whatever force you believe drives the universe for those things existing. I think this movie very much touches on that.

DETROW: And if you're Celebrating Christmas Eve tonight, maybe you're watching "It's A Wonderful Life," or maybe you're watching one of your other favorite holiday films, the movie you put on every time of year right around now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JEFF GILLEN: (As Santa Claus) You'll shoot your eye out, kid.

KAROLYN GRIMES: (As Zuzu Bailey) Look, Daddy. Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.

FAIZON LOVE: (As Gimbel's Manager) OK, people. Tomorrow morning, 10 a.m., Santa is coming to town.

WILL FERRELL: (As Buddy) Santa. Oh, my God.

DETROW: We talked about Christmas movies a couple of weeks ago, but tonight we are going back to that discussion because it's hard to fully quantify just what makes a Christmas classic a classic. Like, what ties George Bailey to Buddy the Elf? I am not going to be like Jack Skellington here and try to figure out the exact chemical equation of what makes Christmas Christmas. What I will do instead is ask NPR pop culture correspondent Linda Holmes to come walk us through how she thinks about this. Hey, Linda.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Hi, Scott. I'm delighted to be here.

DETROW: We are delighted to have you. I mean, in that clip just now, we heard from "A Christmas Story" from 1983, from "It's A Wonderful Life" from 1946, from "Elf," 20 years old this year - 2003. Are these the ones that you would start out with thinking about as classics?

HOLMES: Well, they're certainly among them. And I think there's a lot that's generational about it. You know, when "Elf" came out, I was an adult by then, a young adult. So "Elf" doesn't have the same meaning to me. I think that it does to people who it came out when they were kids. But I think these are three of the ones that I think - when you say, oh, what Christmas movie are you really attached to, a lot of people will give you one of these three. Now...

DETROW: Yeah.

HOLMES: Much of that depends on who you are, right? And...

DETROW: Right.

HOLMES: It's one of the things about any canon - C-A-N-O-N - is that it has a lot to do with who the individual person is, and there's a lot of variations. So what's a Christmas classic? It can sometimes depend on who you ask.

DETROW: But let's think about the ones that are kind of the big pop culture - we talk about them like they're universal reference Christmas movies, right? Like, what do you think it is that puts a movie into that level of canon, that really distinguishes it and says, like, this is a movie that people out there are going to be thinking about 20, 30, 40 years down the line?

HOLMES: Well, they have a couple things in common. I think most of them have at least some level of comedy. I mean, obviously, "Elf" has a lot of very silly comedy in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ELF")

FERRELL: (As Buddy) What's this?

LOVE: (As Gimbel's Manager) This is the North Pole.

FERRELL: (As Buddy) No, it's not.

LOVE: (As Gimbel's Manager) Yes, it is.

FERRELL: (As Buddy) No, it's not.

LOVE: (As Gimbel's Manager) Yes, it is.

FERRELL: (As Buddy) No, it isn't.

LOVE: (As Gimbel's Manager) Yes, it is.

FERRELL: (As Buddy) No, it isn't.

LOVE: (As Gimbel's Manager) Yes, it is.

FERRELL: (As Buddy) No, it's not. Where's the snow?

HOLMES: "A Christmas Story" has some slightly drier but still pretty broad stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHRISTMAS STORY")

SCOTT SCHWARTZ: (As Flick) Are you kidding? Stick my tongue to that stupid pole - that's dumb.

R D ROBB: (As Schwartz) That's cause you know it'll stick.

SCHWARZ: (As Flick) You're full of it.

ROBB: (As Schwartz) Oh, yeah?

SCHWARZ: (As Flick) Yeah.

ROBB: (As Schwartz) Well, I double dog dare you.

JEAN SHEPHERD: (As Ralphie As An Adult) Now it was serious.

HOLMES: On the other hand, they all tend to have some tinge of sadness as well. I think "A Christmas Story" has that sense of nostalgia where everything doesn't always go exactly the way you want, and sometimes things get ruined. Obviously, "It's A Wonderful Life" has lots of sadness in it, and even "Elf" has that sense that Buddy really wants to belong and is a little bit lonely and has things that he wants for his life. And even in a movie like "Home Alone" - right? - you see nothing but slapstick through and through. But it also takes these little moments for Kevin to think about what Christmas is really for and that sort of thing.

DETROW: I want to talk about one element of all of these movies for a moment, though, because, like, you know, the three movies we started with - they, just among themselves, span almost 60 years. So much has changed in pop culture and entertainment over that period of time. You know, we talked to Jamie Broadnax about this - she's a film critic and founder of Black Girl Nerds - about what's missing sometimes from the canon of Christmas favorites. She said her favorite is "Scrooged" with Bill Murray, but she pointed out something else in that conversation.

JAMIE BROADNAX: Even when I mention my favorite Christmas film, it wasn't really a Black film. Right? Alfred Woodard's in it, who we love, but we we don't see a lot of Black people in that film, "Scrooged." I think that overall, in the whole landscape of holiday films, there's still a lot of work to do when it comes to the depiction of Black talent and also Black filmmakers to be represented in those films.

HOLMES: She's right.

DETROW: Right.

HOLMES: She's absolutely right. I've had this conversation with people countless times about the landscape of cable holiday movies on Hallmark and Lifetime and things like that. Fortunately, in the last 10 or 15 years, you see some better representation of more kinds of families. There are a number of really well-loved Christmas movies with ensemble Black casts like "Best Man Holiday" and "This Christmas" and "Almost Christmas." There's one that's out this year on Amazon Prime called "Candy Cane Lane" with Eddie Murphy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CANDY CANE LANE")

EDDIE MURPHY: (As Chris Carver) Hey, everybody. This is my wife, Carol.

TRACEE ELLIS ROSS: (As Carol Carver) Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) Here we come a-caroling among the leaves so green.

ELLIS ROSS: (As Carol Carver) Nope. Nope. That is weird.

HOLMES: Netflix has a number of films for the Latinx community, so that's progress, I think. But look. Jamie's right. This is still an area where there is tons and tons of work to do because when you hear about those, quote-unquote, "classic Christmas movies," you're still seeing a really white group of people. And that's true with, like, the big Christmas movies. It's true of the kind of Christmas-adjacent movies like "Die Hard" and stuff like that. So there's a lot of room for improvement, to say the least.

DETROW: Well, you mentioned "Die Hard." It's Christmas Eve. We've talked a lot about Christmas movies on the show the past few weeks, but we have not gotten to the consequential, very important question. Linda, we're going to do it right now. "Die Hard," to you - Christmas movie, yes or no?

HOLMES: It's absolutely a Christmas movie, yes. But as a kind of a concession to the people who think it's not, I think there's a useful distinction between a Christmas movie like "Elf" and a Christmas movie like "Die Hard." Some Christmas movies are very specifically about Christmas and Christmas lore. Other ones, like "Die Hard" or - the romantic comedy "While You Were Sleeping" with Sandra Bullock is another one; maybe you'd put "Home Alone" in this category, too - are Christmas movies that take advantage of the aesthetic of Christmas - the snow, the cold, the music, certainly, like the way "Die Hard" uses Run-D.M.C. "Christmas In Hollis."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DIE HARD")

BRUCE WILLIS: (As John McClane) You got any Christmas music?

DE'VOREAUX WHITE: (As Argyle) This is Christmas music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS IN HOLLIS")

RUN-D M C: (Rapping) It was December 24 on Hollis Ave in the dark.

HOLMES: It's still a Christmas movie but maybe not in the same way as "A Christmas Story," which is so much about visiting Santa and getting your presents and all that.

DETROW: I feel like "Home Alone" certainly is so into the Christmas aesthetic that I feel like the music of "Home Alone" has now become, like, canon Christmas music for a lot of people.

HOLMES: I think that's right. I think that little (vocalizing)...

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "SOMEWHERE IN MY MEMORY")

HOLMES: I agree.

DETROW: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Linda, I always enjoy talking to you, but I have to say I feel a little disappointed in this conversation.

HOLMES: Oh, no.

DETROW: And that is because you have not once, at any point, mentioned "The Muppet Christmas Carol," which I feel like is top-tier Christmas iconic canon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE MORE SLEEP 'TIL CHRISTMAS")

STEVE WHITMIRE: (As Kermit The Frog/Bob Cratchit, singing) ...Love and care. The promise of excitement is one the night will keep. After all, there's only one more sleep till Christmas.

HOLMES: It's true. I mean, this is what I mean when I say, what is canon? What is not canon? It depends on who you ask. And I have a feeling that if somebody asks you, it's always going to include "The Muppet Christmas Carol." Now, why do you find "The Muppet Christmas Carol" so wonderful?

DETROW: Many reasons. I feel like it's one of the better kind of more modern, like, "Christmas Carol" retellings. But I also - like, I always - I love when people seriously act with Muppets.

HOLMES: Yes.

DETROW: And, like, Michael Caine, as often discussed on the internet, is so serious about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL")

MICHAEL CAINE: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Let us deal with the eviction notices for tomorrow, Mr. Cratchit.

WHITMIRE: (As Kermit The Frog/Bob Cratchit) Tomorrow's Christmas, sir.

CAINE: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Very well. You may gift wrap them.

DETROW: And he's just, like, talking to Kermit. I always love that. I love the songs in it. And actually, Linda, I want to tell you we initially pitched Sir Michael Caine to come on and talk about "The Muppet Christmas Carol" on this Christmas Eve show. But you know what? He said no. And I was actually kind of proud because I was like, ah, Ebenezer Scrooge does not want to do any work on Christmas Eve. Like, perhaps personal growth has come. He learned an important lesson from Kermit, and he's like, no.

HOLMES: Absolutely.

DETROW: I'm taking it off. So I'm very proud of him.

HOLMES: Ebenezer Scrooge is taking the evening off to gather with family and carve up the goose or whatever it is. He doesn't want to work. He doesn't want to answer questions on Christmas Eve. You know, he's seen the ghost of Christmas Future. He knows what's in store.

DETROW: Well, I feel like I have now held you to working on Christmas Eve a bit too much, but thank you for coming on and talking about all of these movies.

HOLMES: Absolutely. Thank you, Scott.

DETROW: God bless us, every one. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.