Timeless Holiday Movies Murray Horwitz and listeners give their picks for the "Best Holiday Movies of All Time."
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Timeless Holiday Movies

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Timeless Holiday Movies

Timeless Holiday Movies

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Thanksgiving came and went, so did Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Yes, the holidays are here - which means presents, family, food, relationships, loneliness, and lots and lots of movies. Romantic movies with kisses under the mistletoe, heart warmers about the meaning of Christmas, good Santas, bad Santas, and baddies who pose as Santa.

(Soundbite of movie, “Elf”)

Mr. WILL FERRELL (Actor) (as Buddy): You sit on a throne of lies.

Unidentified Man (Actor): Look, I'm not kidding.

Mr. FERRELL: You're a fake.

Unidentified Man (Actor): I'm a fake?

Mr. FERRELL: Yes.

Unidentified Man (Actor): How'd you like to be dead. Huh? I'm kidding.

Mr. FERRELL: You stink.

Unidentified Man (Actor): I think you're going to have a good Christmas, all right.

Mr. FERRELL: You smell like beef and cheese. You don't smell like Santa.

Unidentified Man (Actor): Okay.

CONAN: Will Ferrell in the 2003 modern classic “Elf.” Remember the series we did, the last two summers, about movies? Well, it's back by popular demand for a one-time-only winter solstice edition. It's the best holiday movies. We're talking films about the holiday, or which use the holidays as a backdrop, that includes Christmas, New Years, and we challenge you to come up with a Hanukah film that does not involve Adam Sandler.

So what's your favorite holiday movie? Give us a call. Our number: 800-989-2855, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@NPR.org. And we've invited Murray Horwitz back. He's director and COO of the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, here in the Washington area. And he joins us today, by phone, from his office in Silver Spring. What, Murray, you thought it was summertime still?

Mr. MURRAY HORWITZ (American Film Institute's Silver Theatre and Cultural Center): No, there were all these Christmas decorations on Georgia Avenue and I just couldn't get downtown.

CONAN: A slew of holiday movies comes out every year. How many of them are actually any good?

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, that's an unfair question, Neal. It's why you are who you are, what can I tell you. I'm bound to say that almost like Christmas songs, there's no Christmas movie I don't like. Isn't that awful? But it's just indiscriminate. But there are certainly some that rank among the best films of all time. I'm so glad that you called “Elf” a modern classic, cause we agree. I can't say that the box office business confirmed that, but we ran that as a classic, last year, and the year before, cause we think it is that. I think, probably, maybe a little bit higher proportion of - if, I don't know five percent of all movies that are released survive their initial release to get played again, I think it might even be a little higher when it comes to Christmas films.

CONAN: And there are - I understand you want to make a couple of caveats before we continue to too much further.

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, there are a couple of things. I mean, first of all, when we say holiday movies we're really talking about Christmas. And thanks for the Hanukah reference, but, yeah, the listeners are going to have to help us here -cause I can't think of a movie that's like about Hanukah. We're not, we're even talking about New Years. Because even though New Year's Eve and New Year's Day show up in a lot of movies, there aren't any real movie - we're basically talking here about Christmas movies.

And the other thing is, we need to make, I guess, a special exemption and disclaimer for what are essentially TV movies. And some of the best, and some of the most classic Christmas films - like the animated Dr. Seuss's “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red Nose” - those are mostly, those are made for TV movies.

We're talking about theatrical released motion pictures.

CONAN: All right. Now let's see if we can get some listeners involved in the conversation. We'll begin with Carissa, is that right? In West Virginia?

CARISSA (Caller): Yeah, Carissa.

CONAN: Okay. Go ahead.

CARISSA: Hi. Actually I was just calling to let you know that one of my favorite Christmas movies is called “A Christmas Story.” I'm pretty sure that's the name of it, with Ralphie.

CONAN: Yes. Everybody knows that one.

CARISSA: Everyone knows that one. But my family for fun, a few years ago started creating a Christmas Eve challenge: secret Santas around Christmas movies. And so each year, we'll get together for that. One year we did a leg lamp challenge, where everyone had to build their own leg lamp. And my father actually purchased an original actual leg lamp and whoever won it - whoever wins the challenge for the year basically gets to take the leg lamp home with them for the year.

CONAN: So it's like the Stanley Cup. It visits the winner's home every year.

CARISSA: Yeah. Stanley Cup is the electric sex in the window.

CONAN: A Christmas story - it's one of those classic movies that features the amazing scene where little Ralphie goes up to visit Santa in the department store and can't remember what it is that he wants.

(Soundbite of movie, “A Christmas Story”)

Mr. PETER BILLINGSLEY (Actor): (As Ralphie Parker) No, no, I want an official Red Ryder, carbon-action, 200-shot-range model air rifle.

Mr. JEFF GILLEN (Actor): (As Santa Claus) You'll shoot your eye out, kid. Merry Christmas. Ho-ho-ho.

Mr. BILLINGSLEY: (As Ralphie) Noooo…

CONAN: A scene that's been reprised in a commercial that was on TV recently. That was Peter Billingsley as Ralphie in the 1983 film, “A Christmas Story.” Now Murray, that's Christmas nostalgia done to a turn.

Mr. HORWITZ: It's one of my very favorite Christmas movies, and that one is one that mostly people have seen on TV. We've shown it here at the AFI Silver Theater, and we displayed - not the leg lamp, but the Daisy BB gun - and you wouldn't believe the crowds around our display case. Look, look, that's the Daisy BB gun. We can't, Neal, mention this film without saying that is narrated by, and based on, a classic story by Jean Shepard - who is one of the great radio personalities of American history.

CONAN: Of your youth and mine, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah. And also, it's directed by Bob Clark, and he really has established himself as the director of one classic, with this - thus I would say, atoning for his earlier work on such pictures as “Porky's” and “Porky's II.”

CONAN: Okay. Carissa, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. Have a great time selecting your secret Santa this Christmas. I think Carissa's left us. Let's go to - this is Mark(ph), Mark's with us from Columbia, South Carolina.

MARK (Caller): How are you doing? (Unintelligible).

CONAN: Hi, go ahead.

MARK: I actually enjoyed that movie “A Christmas Carol.”

Mr. HORWITZ: Which one?

MARK: With Ebenezer Scrooge. The old one - not the new one with Bill Murray.

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, there have actually been - not counting adaptations like “Scrooged” that you just made reference to - there have been no fewer than six theatrical-release versions of Charles Dickens's “A Christmas Carol” throughout film history, including a silent - a couple of silent versions, I think.

CONAN: And one with the Muppets.

Mr. HORWITZ: An that's our pick for that one, “The Muppets Christmas Carol,” which is, I would argue, another modern classic.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Judy(ph) in Boise, Idaho. I love the Alistair Sim's version of “A Christmas Carol,” and would - until last year, have voted my favorite holiday movie. But then came “Polar Express,” and it has to go to the top of the list both for its story, and message, and incredible technology. Theoretically, I guess it's a children's story, but I'm 66, had no small children to read it to when the book came out - indeed, I've never read the book - and I absolutely loved it. So “Polar Express,” what did you think, Murray?

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, we sort of kicked that around here at the theater, and I'd agree about the technology. Also, there was - the theme song for “Polar Express,” - which I think was sung by Josh Groban - was nominated for an Oscar. I don't think anybody thought of it as a real Christmas classic. I think that's one of those, you know, some yes, some no kinds of movies. People tend to be divided about it.

There are those people who just are passionate about it. I'm not sure, though, and it would be interesting if Judy knew, if it really caught on with kids. I think a certain sort of generation of grownup liked that movie most.

CONAN: We do, however, all remember fondly the Bill Murray version. For the cynic in all of us, there is always his character in “Scrooged.”

(Soundbite of movie, “Scrooged”)

Mr. JOHN MURRAY (Actor) (As James Cross) So any chance of you maybe making Christmas dinner this year?

Mr. BILL MURRAY (Actor): (As Frank Cross) None.

Mr. JOHN MURRAY: (As James) Come on, why not?

Mr. BILL MURRAY: (As Frank) Don't start, James.

Mr. JOHN MURRAY: (As James) Come on. The whole family will be there. It'll be fun.

Mr. BILL MURRAY: (As Frank) Look, you can have your concerned and wonderful dinner with all your cool friends, and the real popcorn, and the tree, and cranberries and everything, send Christmas cards to each other on recycled paper. It's a crock, James. It's for kids.

CONAN: It's for kids. Well, Bill Murray and all of us come to know better, don't we?

Mr. HORWITZ: There's something that's elegant, though, about bah humbug. It's also, you know, one of the great things about that movie is that it was one of the great makeup movies. In fact, it got nominated for one of the first Oscars given for best makeup. And it's a favorite of many people, and it's a terrific Christmas movie.

CONAN: When you first said makeup, I thought Bill making his peace with Santa. Anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Eddie(ph), Eddie with us from Louisville, Kentucky.

EDDIE (Caller): Hi. I'd like to submit a couple of non-traditional ones. That would be “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard.” Everybody except those on the West Coast and the Gulf states, are used to seeing snow at Christmastime, but on “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard,” it's sunny and breezy, and people are wearing T-shirts.

CONAN: I always think AK-47, that's what I think of for Christmas (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: Taking the Daisy air rifle to whole new levels. Not only is it sunny and breezy, the whole building's on fire in “Die Hard.” We've got it on our list, Eddie, and this falls into a genre of some of the most-beloved Christmas movies that aren't really about Christmas, but Christmas kind of figures in them - and “Die Hard” and “Die Hard 2” and “Lethal Weapon” are among them. But also, some amazing movies that feature Christmas and/or New Year's, the most famous, of course, being “It's a Wonderful Life,” which is not a Christmas movie as such, but Christmas is a big part of it.

But in “The Godfather,” in “The Apartment,” in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” in “Love Actually,” the holidays figure prominently.

CONAN: You mentioned “The Apartment.” It's a film by Billy Wilder that uses the season to a wonderful, dramatic effect. Let's listen here to Fred MacMurray being really oily.

(Soundbite of film, “The Apartment”)

Ms. SHIRLEY MACLAINE (Actress): (As Fran Kubelik) How could I be so stupid? You'd think I would've learned by now. When you're in love with a married man, you shouldn't wear mascara.

Mr. FRED MACMURRAY (Actor): (As Jeff D. Sheldrake) It's Christmas Eve, Fran. Let's not fight, huh?

Ms. MACLAINE: (As Fran) Merry Christmas.

Mr. MACMURRAY: (As Jeff) Oh, I have a present for you. I didn't quite know what to get you. Besides, it's kind of awkward for me shopping. So here's $100. You go and buy yourself something.

CONAN: Eww.

Mr. HORWITZ: Oh God, the man you love to hate.

CONAN: Can you believe he was the father in “My Three Sons?”

Mr. HORWITZ: But that's the great part about the casting. I can't remember right offhand, Neal, who was supposed to get that role. It might have been John Gavin or somebody, but Fred MacMurray was not the first choice. And the fact that he is so kind of gee-whiz all-American makes him all the more sinister and horrible.

You may remember that there's this - Shirley MacLaine tries to commit suicide and is rescued by Jack Lemmon. And when he calls, or she calls, Fred MacMurray - he's at home in Westchester in this picture of domestic bliss with the Christmas tree in the background, and he's like: I can't talk to her now. I'm home at Christmas with my family. I mean it's really, as you said, a very dark and dramatic use of Christmas.

CONAN: Eddie, thanks very much for the call. We're talking about best holiday movies ever with Murray Horwitz. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and this will be Chris(ph), Chris calling us from Wyoming.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

CHRIS: I was going to mention “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Edward Scissorhands” because of the darker side of Christmas.

CONAN: And what did you like about “The Nightmare Before Christmas?”

CHRIS: Well, not just the animation, but kind of the evil side.

CONAN: It is, of course, one of the very rare movies that combines Halloween and Christmas. Let's listen to an excerpt.

(Soundbite of film, “The Nightmare Before Christmas”

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Singing) What's this in here? They've got a little tree. How queer, and who would ever think, and why, that covering with tiny little things they've got electric lights on strings, and now they'll smile at everyone. So now berate me if I'm wrong (unintelligible) could it be I got my wish?

CONAN: An excerpt from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” And Murray, this is an unusual vision of the holiday.

Mr. HORWITZ: It is. It's Tim Burton, and as you say, it's as much a Halloween film as it is a Christmas story, but I think Chris makes a great point. I guess it's Christmas. You'll have to remind me, Chris - is this person really named Chris, and he's calling about Christmas? - that in “Edward Scissorhands,” it's - you know, there's really - Christmas is about the ultimate redemption story, isn't it?

And so as with Ebenezer Scrooge and other characters, there's all kinds of redemption. And Edward Scissorhands, I think, proves his usefulness to the community by making ice sculptures, on - I guess it's on Christmas. Is that right, Chris?

CHRIS: It is on Christmas, and he actually makes it snow, creating an ice sculpture for Christmas.

Mr. HORWITZ: That's right, that's right. And you know, I'm getting chills up my back just remembering it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: It's a very warm feeling, despite that sort of bleak vision of Tim Burton.

CONAN: Chris, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Musicals, of course, brings to mind - well, perhaps the most popular Christmas tune of all time that debuted in a picture called “Holiday Inn.”

(Soundbite of film, “Holiday Inn”)

Ms. MARJORIE REYNOLDS (Actress): (As Linda Mason) I don't care if you pay off an egg, just give me a chance.

Mr. BING CROSBY (Actor): (As Jim HARDY) Well, let's see what you can do.

Ms. REYNOLDS (Actress): (As Linda Mason) Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Mr. CROSBY: (As Hardy) You know, I've written special music for each holiday. This sort of gives me a chance to keep a little promise I made to myself. I said I was going to sing this song at the inn, tonight.

(Soundbite of song, “White Christmas”)

Mr. CROSBY: (As Hardy) (Singing) I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…

CONAN: Bing Crosby, of course. Fred Astaire also in that movie, and some wonderful numbers, Murray, if you can get past the Lincoln's birthday sequences.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: There are, but it's worth talking, just for a minute about “White Christmas” because you mentioned… First of all, the great comedian Robert Klein has, with some hyperbole, wondered aloud, why it is that all the greatest Christmas songs have been written by Jews in the United States.

But there's Irving Berlin's “White Christmas,” and it's hard to strip away the decades of treacle and sentiment from “White Christmas” and (unintelligible it's really a terrific song. It's almost a perfectly crafted American popular song. And as you mentioned, it went on to become not just maybe the most beloved Christmas song, but it was the most - until The Beatles, I think, or until Elvis Presley - it was the biggest-selling record of all time, and it was the film that made it such. To the point where there was actually a sequel, in 1953 or so, called “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby again, and Rosemary Clooney.

CONAN: And of course, it was the musical signal to Americans in Vietnam to bug out in 1975. Who can forget that, either? And there's one film that we've included here, Murray, on your recommendation, one that would make Ed Wood squirm in his grave.

(Soundbite of film, “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”)

Mr. JOHN HALL (Actor): (As Santa Claus) What do you advise?

Mr. LEONARD HICKS (Actor): (As Kimar) That children must be allowed to be children again. They must learn to play. They must learn what it means to have fun. We need a Santa Claus on Mars.

CONAN: So Murray Horwitz, does “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” does that get the Murray for this category?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: Yes, happily so, and I have to really give proper recognition to my colleague, Maria Insua(ph) here at the Silver Theater, who's done a lot to pick this. We wanted to make the point, that there have been zillions and zillions of attempts to exploit Christmas in film, over the years. This one is particularly hilariously inept, and it has a big cult following, and I encourage everybody to become part of that cult.

It's from 1964, it's called “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” It lives up to its name, and it's directed by Nicholas Webster.

CONAN: And if you'd like to see some of your selections at our Web site, go to the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org/talk. Murray Horwitz, always great to talk to you no matter where you are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: Thanks so much, Neal. I'll see you there soon, I hope.

CONAN: Happy holidays.

Mr. HORWITZ: Thanks. Same to you.

CONAN: Murray Horwitz, Director and COO of the American Film Institute's Silver Theater and Cultural Center, and he joined us on the phone from his office in Silver Spring, Maryland. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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