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Monday, December 18 Living

Traditional holiday movies battle it out with oddball newbies

Do you like your Christmas movies straight or with a twist?

Although I tend to fall back on nostalgic favorites, such as the original “Miracle on 34th Street” or the Alastair Sim “A Christmas Carol,” when I want to get into the holiday mood, this year’s Rotten Tomatoes list of the “25 Best Christmas Movies of All Time” features the Bruce Willis action film “Die Hard” at No. 7 and the Eddie Murphy-Dan Aykroyd comedy, “Trading Places,” at No. 18.

I like both of those pictures, but never thought of them as holiday- season classics.

The 2017 Esquire editors’ list of the top 25 is even more perverse, saving a spot for the 1999 Stanley Kubrick film “Eyes Wide Shut.” (Yes, the film takes place during the holiday season, but I can’t imagine a family gathering where everyone sits down to watch the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman film about a kinky sex cult in New York City.)

By these standards, the list makers cited above should have found room for one of my all-time favorite movies, “Three Days of the Condor,” Sydney Pollack’s CIA thriller set during a particularly chilly holiday season in New York City. The final freeze-frame places Robert Redford in the middle of a group of Salvation Army Christmas carolers.

A recent wave of R-rated raunch fests have also dealt with Christmas in nontraditional ways. Billy Bob Thornton has starred in two “Bad Santa” films and this season brought us the new theatrical release, “A Bad Moms Christmas,” which earned its R-rating for “crude sexual content and language throughout, and some drug use.”

Theatrical holiday movies have become a rarity in recent years, with audiences preferring to stay home to watch the countless Christmas movies available on cable TV and the streaming services. The Hallmark Channel has churned out more holiday films than any other TV outlet, but none of them has achieved the perennial status of the golden oldies.

Ironically, the Frank Capra movie that tops both the Rotten Tomatoes and Esquire lists, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” was a financial flop when it opened in theaters in 1946. Both Capra and his star, James Stewart, who had both just served in World War II, were devastated by the movie’s poor reception.

In honor of the 70th anniversary of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ check out these interesting facts about the famous film.

Media: MediaOS Video

The all-powerful New York Times critic Bosley Crowther found the movie to be much too sentimental: “Mr. Capra's nice people are charming, his small town is a quite beguiling place and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities. And Mr. Capra’s ‘turkey dinners’ philosophy, while emotionally gratifying, doesn’t fill the hungry paunch.”

The movie didn’t gain widespread favor until 30 years later when Capra’s production company accidentally let the copyright on “It’s a Wonderful Life” lapse. Once the movie went into public domain, TV stations around the country could show the film without paying any licensing fees, and many of them began airing the movie multiple times in the run-up to Christmas.

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Eventually, the rights to the movie were nailed down by one production company just in time to market “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a DVD in the 1990s and 2000s and then as a streaming service selection.

You might be surprised to learn that another holiday perennial, “A Christmas Story,” barely made a box-office ripple when it opened in theaters 34 years ago. The mix of sentimental and wry comedy, drawn from a Jean Shepherd memoir of his 1940s-era childhood in the Midwest, didn’t take off until the 1990s when Ted Turner’s programmers at TBS decided to repeat it 24 hours straight, starting Christmas Eve.

A fairly recent film, “Elf” (released in 2003), has quickly become one of the most popular holiday season TV offerings. That’s a testament to star Will Ferrell’s very amusing performance as the overgown elf, Buddy, and the cleverness of his adventures in New York City after he leaves the North Pole.

During the past decade, “A Christmas Story” and “Elf” were both transformed into well-received Broadway musicals, which are produced all over the country each year. A major revival of the musical version of “Elf” is playing at Madison Square Garden in New York City through Dec. 29.

jmeyers@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @joesview

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