It's that time of year again where we gather family close, rip open a fresh carton of egg nog and huddle around the cool LED glow of our boob-tubes to watch some classic holiday entertainment. It's the one time of the year where you know, absolutely, that good, wholesome, worthwhile sentiments will rule over crass cynicism and self-interested greed, at least until the third act.
Or do you? Do you even KNOW what's in that egg nog? Could those very same holiday classics hide a deeper, darker, secret message that you never realized was there all the time? Strap on your mulled-wine goggles, take a look at these holiday classics and then decide for yourself.
4. "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946)
Plot: A man makes a series of questionable judgement calls -- including keeping his sappy, alcoholic uncle on the payroll -- that result in him facing serious felony charges with federal bank regulators and attempting suicide. That is, until a supernatural being alters space and time just to teach him a completely unnecessary lesson.
In the movie, George Bailey never does anything he wants to do, including working as a fisherman in Alaska and appearing in a color film. Instead he ends up running the savings and loan his father founded, alongside his uncle Billy Bailey, a guy who makes Ashton Kutcher look like a MENSA candidate. Thanks to Billy's stupidity and incompetence, he loses $8,000 of the bank's money, everything the S&L had to its name, which is approximately a billion dollars today adjusted for inflation. The bank examiner wants to ask George what the hell's going on and then throw him in jail, because back then the government still bothered regulating banks.
Unbeknownst to him, however, an angel has been sent from heaven in the form of a doddering old fool named Clarence (and NOT a Victoria's Secret lingerie model, thanks, god) to give George a hand and selfishly earn himself his "wings." Unfortunately for George, his angel's not the sharpest knife in the block, and all he manages to do is spout bizarre anachronistic references, that is until George tells him he wants to commit suicide. Clarence thinks a second and then decides to completely alter the fabric of space and time to show George what the universe would be like if he (George) had never been born. Apparently that's a lot easier than just telling George where the $8,000 is.
In this new universe, George never existed, and so a lot of things never happened, which somehow led evil businessman Henry Potter (Drew Barrymore's great-uncle) to take over the entire town and turn it into a cross between Las Vegas and some of the more crack-intensive areas of Detroit. All the Norman Rockwell townspeople have turned into jerks, causing George to freak out again.
Clarence once again alters the fabric of spacetime and returns the universe to its previous state. George is happy again, everyone strangely decides to give more of their hard-earned money to him to cover up his mismanagement of their original funds, and the financial regulators apparently forget all about the felony charges for the original (still unsolved) crime. Ho ho ho!!
The Reputation: A feel-good tale that showcases the best, most enduring parts of the human spirit that transcend petty, material concerns, along with the surprisingly hot Donna Reed.
Hidden Terrible Lesson: Everything will work out fine for you in life, so long as the dopey supernatural creature assigned to you completely alters the universe, twice.
3. "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947)
Plot: A department store Santa Claus, who is uniquely not a chronic alcoholic ex-con, is legally declared to be Santa Claus by a cynical local judge with the help of lazy and opportunistic postal workers.
Kris is a kindly, homeless old man who lucks into a Santa Claus gig at Macy's, back when this was a big deal and not a stipulation of your parole. The Special Events coordinator, an uptight single parent named Doris Walker got him the gig but becomes suspicious after Kris reveals himself to be perfectly sober, law-abiding, and honest about the crappy quality of merchandise for sale at Macy's. Oh and he calls himself "Kris Kringle."
Obviously insane, Kris is sent to see the company psychologist, a guy named Sawyer who's also wound up tighter than a steel spring. Caught up in his own personal problems, he ignores his professional responsibilities and takes his frustration out on Kris, recommending the doddering old guy be committed to an insane asylum because he (Kris) "can't concentrate."
See in the 1940s you could be institutionalized solely on the flimsiest whim of anyone in any position of authority.
However, the store's owner Mr. Macy has since turned Kris' honesty into one of the most cynical business models since "The Pet Rock," and began exploiting the good will of his customers to drive up his own profits. It turns out when Kris recommended people go to other stores to buy stuff because Macy's sold low-quality garbage, customers appreciated the honesty and bought more (presumably other) stuff from Macy's out of some misplaced sense of loyalty. So the owner decides to exploit this good-will immediately and demands Kris remain out of the funny farm, at least while it's profitable.
To minimize Kris' exposure to the public -- and thus reduce the potential for this loony to become violent -- he goes to live with divorcee Doris and her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood). Here he meets John Gailey, an attorney trying to get into Doris' pants by manipulating her child to like him, something he openly admits and everyone finds charming. Despite that, he's on Kris' side, buying the old man's story hook, line and sinker because there are "intangible things" in the universe. Presumably he's talking about dark matter or something, although why he finds that relevant to a senile old man's megalomaniacal delusions is beyond me.
Stuff happens and eventually Kris is put on trial to once and for all determine if he really is Santa Claus, because nothing gets at the absolute truth like a good old fashioned jury trial, just ask O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony. Anyway, Gailey steps up to defend him, albeit incompetently. Things are going terribly for Kris until an opportunistic postal worker figures out a devious way to get rid of all the "Santa Claus" mail that's been piling up for years: dump it on Kris and make it his problem. The scheme lets the USPS clear up a ton of office space, and generously allows Kris to pop a hernia while spending all his Santa salary incinerating the letters. When you've got a problem, outsource it!
Timing is everything, because right around now the judge on this case realizes he's up for re-election soon, possibly because his Blackberry calendar wasn't working properly until just now, and figures he can secure victory by going along with the USPS' hair-brained scheme. He rules that Kris legally is "Santa Claus" and everyone's happy... despite the fact that he's just set a more ridiculous legal precedent than Bush v. Gore.
The Reputation: The quintessential holiday classic that teaches that even the most "realistic" among us can learn to see value in the ineffable, yet intensely meaningful qualities of human experience.
Hidden Terrible Lesson: Stick to your delusions long enough and someone will bail you out for their own selfish reasons.
2. "Home Alone" (1990)
Plot: Criminally negligent parents recklessly endanger their child by leaving him alone at home with violent criminals while they jet off to a Christmas vacation in Paris. Never has child endangerment been more hilarious!
It's a premise so bad they made it three times.
It's Christmastime in the McCallister household and Pete and Kate McCallister are planning a Paris vacation with approximately every member of their extended family for an estimated cost of $10 million. Pete and Kate have five kids, three boys and two girls, and are being joined by countless cousins, uncles and aunts, which has transformed their palatial Chicago mansion into a version of Richie Rich's personal Chuck E. Cheese.
Chaos rules as everyone frantically gets ready the next morning, loads up the cars, drives to the airport, checks in, sits in their assigned seats on the plane, orders a drink, and, for the first time in days, relaxes just a little bit. It's only as the plane takes off that Kate realizes she's lost the ability to count to "3" and has managed to leave her youngest son Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) home alone. Hilarity ensues.
Ok, Pete and Kate are not in danger of winning parents of the year. Felony child neglect charges definitely, but not parents of the year.
Of course, this is a great gift to Kevin, who gets to do all those things kids would do if only their parents wouldn't interfere, like eat too much ice cream and mercilessly torture the two knuckleheaded burglers who break in and stupidly refuse to leave. Kevin plays with his prey like an experienced serial killer, inflicting Wile E. Coyote levels of damage on dopey Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) until, thankfully for their lives, the parents finally make it back home.
Had they returned say an hour later, I'm pretty sure Kevin would've already fed the bodies into the wood chipper.
Possibly for fear of Harry and Marv pressing criminal assault charges of their own, Kevin never mentions the break-in nor his untold hours violently abusing the two masochists. Harry and Marv also don't alert the authorities, and, more bizarrely, don't immediately sue the McCallisters for millions of dollars in damages, probably because they've got the I.Q. of granite and have never met an attorney who would salivate like one of Pavlov's dogs over the chance to reduce the wealthy McCallister family to selling pencils on the street out of a cheap tin cup.
The Reputation: A cute, feel-good comedy about child-empowerment, and a mother's enduring love for her children in the face of tremendous obstacles.
Hidden Terrible Lesson: Conspicuously committing crimes is fine so long as you're rich and the people you're exploiting are stupid.
1. "Scrooged" (1988)
Plot: Miserable T.V. exec Frank Cross is looking to "own" Christmas with his tacky live-action rendition of Charles Dicken's "A Christmas Carol." Predictably, he is then visited by three ghosts, who pour rich and creamy life lessons all over his naked, exposed soul.
It's Christmas Eve, and uptight jerk Frank Cross (Ghostbuster Bill Murray) runs a major television network which is solely dedicated to producing a boffo Christmas special based on a 160 year old story that everyone's done -- in every media form -- a billion times before. But this time he has Mary Lou Retton playing Tiny Tim and John Houseman doing narration, so you can tell it's destined to top the Nielsens.
Top the Nielsens in Lightfoot, Arizona, that is.
Unfortunately Frank's ideas for promoting this career-making extravaganza are horrible, which is only pointed out by Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait), the sole corporate sycophant at the table stupid enough to say something honest. He is fired in record time by Frank, who watches through a telescope from his luxurious top-floor office while Bobcat is forcibly thrown into the street, in much the same manner I imagine Barack Obama wanted to do with George W. Bush after being sworn in.
Anyway, later on Frank is visited by the zombie of an old boss and golfing partner, who tells him he's wasting his life being a cynical T.V. executive and should instead do good things. Frank drinks a lot of booze and agrees. The zombie leaves and Frank blames the whole experience on Chernobyl-tainted vodka.
As it turns out, Chernobyl-tainted vodka really just gives you throat tumors the size of cantaloupes and not hallucinations about undead bosses.
Nevertheless, later on Frank realizes the zombie was right when Buster Poindexter -- to be fair, a zombie in his own right -- takes him on a wild cab ride into his past. In the flashback, Frank learns he never really did get the plot of "A Christmas Carol," and is therefore surprised to learn he chose a high-powered career and wealth over middle-class medocrity and hurt people, namely his girlfriend Karen Allen. Allen here furthers her acting career playing girlfriends by playing Frank's crunchy-granola-hipster girlfriend, who I'm sure at this very moment is "occupying" someplace in America, possibly a methodone clinic but I'm just guessing.
In any case, this flashback is followed by visits from two more ghosts, who, of course, stuff him like a Butterball turkey with all kinds of life lessons until he is dumped back home a changed man.
About this time, Loudermilk (Goldthwait) shows up with a shotgun to murder Frank for ruining his life. He misses, Frank reveals himself to be injected with all kinds of good cheer and holiday spirit now (it might be Demerol), everyone forgives him, and they sing a happy tune throughout the credit crawl. And God bless us, everyone!
The Reputation: A funny, modern twist on a sentimental holiday classic with yucks and zombies for the whole family.
Hidden Terrible Lesson: Fire people at Christmas to encourage personal growth.