The Best Holiday Films Mischievously Undermine the Values They Superficially Promote

Rachel King

These holiday movies are more about messing up one’s life and finding second chances than they are about expressing joy to the world.

Clearly, a lot of people still adore '40s-era holiday movies. For a good 45 years of my life I never understood why. Does anyone really have memories of such a perfect Christmas?

Look, I’m nostalgic about my childhood, too, but because it was a secular Jewish one, Christmas simply didn’t play a huge role in my memory-making. Sure, we exchanged presents on 25 December (as well as during the eight days of Hanukkah), but we skipped just about every other seasonal tradition. In our house, we had no tree trimming, no caroling, no ritual viewings of Miracle on 34th Street.

As a result I really only knew the names of the so-called holiday classic films, but had no idea what the films were really about, beyond the obvious. Finally, while in my 20s, when a boyfriend put on It’s a Wonderful Life and I duly sat beside him and watched it, I thought, eh, and just considered his affection for the film a quirk in his personality.

I dismissed the movie after I’d seen it—as well as the many classic Christmas films I hadn’t seen—as “heartwarming” and “kid-friendly” but probably not actually good. When, however, as a middle-aged adult I started watching those movies on my own, I realized I’d been wrong for decades. Almost none of them were heartwarming, thankfully, and some of them were surprisingly very good, indeed.

Also, I’d think twice before showing them to children.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

I came to these classic holiday movies through what must be an unusual route: a love of all things Barbara Stanwyck. Like most people acquainted with '40s Hollywood cinema, I knew her as the charming con artist Jean Harrington in 1941's The Lady Eve and the sexy sociopath Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944).

But after seeing her as a heartless (but somehow likeable) gold-digger in the 1933 movie Baby Face, I realized Double Indemnity and The Lady Eve were no flukes. She was good in everything. (I’m not alone in my admiration; one biography of the actress, alluding to one of her lesser-known films, is called Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman (1931)

So I wanted to see her in everything she had done: melodramas, westerns, screwball comedies, and noirs. Stanwyck excelled in nearly every film genre of the '30s, '40s, and '50s except for one: the musical. Anyone who has seen her play a vaudeville performer in Lady of Burlesque (1943) knows why; though the former chorus girl could dance divinely, she lacked the necessary vocal chops. (Howard Hawks wisely had her singing voice dubbed when she played a nightclub chanteuse in 1941's Ball of Fire.)

Stanwyck is my cinematic soul mate; even her shortcomings further endear her to me. I loathe musicals, so she made my life easy by not making any.

In the end, there was only one kind of movie that she dabbled in that gave me pause: holiday-themed films.

Of course, Stanwyck wasn’t the only top-tier star of the '40s to make her mark in films that have gone on to become holiday classics. Jimmy Stewart ofIt's a Wonderful Life (1946) fame, is of course the best-known example. Bette Davis had us wrapped around her finger as Maggie Cutler in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Judy Garland serenaded the boy next door in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Fred Astaire tap-danced his way through Holiday Inn (1942), while his erstwhile dance partner Ginger Rogers charmed us in the somber I’ll Be Seeing You (1944).

Holiday Inn (1942)

Late in the decade, Robert Mitchum was a drifter in the story of Holiday Affair (1949) and Cary Grant played an angel dispensing advice on marriage and millinery in The Bishop’s Wife (1947). (Even child actress Natalie Wood had a memorable turn in Miracle on 34th Street long before she became a full-fledged adult star.)

Still, I had no plans initially to tackle that entire list of movies (not to mention It Happened On 5th Avenue (1947), a film that lacks any iconic star, but which features many well-loved character actors). My initial plan was to stop with my list of must see holiday movies after watching the two Stanwyck movies.

I started with Remember the Night, a 1940 Preston Sturges-penned melodrama. Stanwyck plays a glamorous shoplifter who gets picked up by the police just before Christmas for stealing a bracelet from a high-end jewelry store. At first the Assistant District Attorney (Fred MacMurray) is intent on throwing the book at her. But she’s a young woman, and pretty, and well, it’s Christmas. The prosecutor, unlike the accused, feels guilty; he bails her out of jail and, upon learning that she’s a fellow Hoosier whose mother lives near his, offers to drive her home to Indiana for the holidays.

Once the two arrive in the Midwest, MacMurray meets Stanwyck’s gorgon of a mother, and he starts to understand how his life might have unfolded differently if he’d grown up without his own mother’s love and understanding. By the end of the film, both characters have had a chance to turn over a new leaf just in time for the New Year. The thief has a chance to atone for her crimes, and the careerist learns there’s more to life than professional accomplishments.

The Christmas setting enhances this theme of personal renewal, but it doesn’t define the film. Indeed, it wasn't even released by Paramount in time for the Christmas holiday season of 1939, and came out instead in January of 1940. That is, the Christmas setting was used artistically to support the film’s themes, but it wasn’t part of the studio’s marketing strategy for it.

Remember the Night (1940)

In retrospect, I’m not surprised that Remember the Night wasn’t deemed an appropriate holiday vehicle. This is a movie that is more about messing up one’s life and finding second chances than it is about expressing joy to the world.

And that, I came to realize, is true of most the classic Hollywood movies of the '40s. It was only in later years, when the insatiable maw of television had to be constantly fed, that these films became cheesy Christmas traditions. They are broadcast every December, of course, but perhaps only half-watched by distracted viewers wrapping presents, planning festive meals, or otherwise multitasking. Taken out of their Depression-era or wartime context, their themes are perhaps not always well understood and their nuances overlooked.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

The granddaddy of them all, It’s a Wonderful Life, seems to us today like a bulletproof classic, but in fact in 1946, it was a rare embarrassment for director Frank Capra—a box office flop. Audiences found it depressing and the FBI considered it a bit of Communist subversion. John A. Noakes noted in Film History / Bankers and Common Men in Bedford Falls: How the FBI Determined That "It's a Wonderful Life" Was a Subversive Movie, that Capra’s movie was investigated by the F.B.I. as part of the witch hunt for Hollywood “reds”. (Jay Roach's Trumbo (2015), deals with this same period.) In fact, according to Jonathan Munby in the book Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American British and European Cinema, Capra didn’t regard the story of George Bailey’s stunted life and quashed dreams as appropriate for Christmas at all, and RKO had originally scheduled the film (like Remember the Night seven years earlier) for January. But there was a hole in the December schedule that the studio needed to fill, and at the last minute the release date was moved up a month.

I wonder whether the film might have been better received if it had come out as first intended, after the holidays. American audiences of the time, buffeted by 17 years of hardship since the stock market crash of 1929, accepted film noir and other movies with dark themes. Still, it may have been that at Christmastime they wanted something more uplifting than a film about a man contemplating suicide. In fact, just as the initial failure of It’s a Wonderful Life, might have been due to bad timing, the film’s current status as a classic is an accident of history, as well.

After the film’s ignominious box office performance in 1946, for 30 years it was rarely screened. Then, according to Munby, in 1974 it happened to fall out of copyright and into the public domain. At last, it had found its moment. While '70s audiences worried about a rise in urban crime, It’s a Wonderful Life and its depiction of quaint small-town life must have provided a distraction from the violent dramas played out daily on city streets. It might also have served as a respite from the other movies of the time, gritty dramas like the string of Dirty Harry movies that made contemporary urban life look like constant hell. (In that context, it’s worth noting that for most of the Capra film, poky Bedford Falls serves as George Bailey’s de facto prison; he longs to escape to see the great cities of the world.) By the '80s, the film was an established classic.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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