Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 25, 2009
POP CULTURE: Christmas Collaborations
We've introduced our kids to some new Christmas entertainments lately, and it has me thinking about those rare occasions when great talents come together at the peak of their powers.
One is the Grinch. We've only just introduced the Grinch to our 3-year-old, first in book form and then the video of the TV special. And the TV special is truly a perfect storm of three great talents: you have the words by Dr. Suess, who isn't just a great children's writer but a great writer, period - the things he could accomplish and convery with a few words of the English language surpasses much of the vastly wordier and less lyrical literature and poetry aimed at adults in its artistry. You have the animation by Chuck Jones of Bugs Bunny, Road Runner and Tom & Jerry fame, the greatest of the 1930s-1970s golden age of animators - Jones was a true genius, and his signature moves are all pulled out for the Grinch. And you have the priceless narration by Boris Karloff. And on top of those three legends, you have the pitch-perfect songs and vocals by less well-known musical figures.
The other is White Christmas, the 1954 film, which we just introduced to our 10- and 12-year-olds and which frankly I only started watching - now an annual ritual - at my wife's insistence after I got married. The film may have some of the weaknesses common to the old musicals - contrived plot, cheesy scenery, songs that are wedged into the storyline - and it may have been a recycling of the idea of building a film around the song "White Christmas" (first debuted in the 1942 Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire film "Holiday Inn"), but it's a classic collaboration of four great talents in their primes - two great singers (Crosby and Rosemary Clooney), a great dancer (Vera Ellen), and the great comedy/song-and-dance talents of Danny Kaye, and of course the classic music by Irving Berlin. A classic alignment of the stars.
In a similar vein, a third film that seems destined to join those two in the pantheon of Christmas holiday entertainment is Elf, a film that has worn well now over seven Christmas seasons. As I think I have written before, my guess is that aside from the obvious exception of James Caan, none of the highly successful entertainers in the film - Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Zooey Deschanel - will turn out to have done anything quite as lasting as a classic Christmas film.
(I should add here as well my recommendation of another Christmas favorite: "Scrooge," the 1970 musical version of A Christmas Carol, starring Albert Finney, for my money the best version ever done).
This is also the time of year when I annually revisit my list of the greatest contemporary Christmas songs.
I put the list together in 2003, and I wouldn't change much if I did it today. Probably the one substitution in my Christmas mixes is that I have moved on from the Elvis version of "Blue Christmas" in favor of the Leon Redbone version, which is characteristically mellow and melancholy, and the Kelly Clarkson version, which is characteristically wrenching. More broadly, Redbone's whole Christmas Island album is one of the real must-have Christmas CDs (I think he may have my favorite take on "There's No Place Like Home For The Holidays," among others). And while I'm on the subject of Leon Redbone and Elf, his duet with Deschanel of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is quite good:
As for Clarkson, she really ought to do a Christmas album of her own - Bing Crosby still owns "I'll Be Home For Christmas," but her live version of it is something special:
As for additions to the list, there are none I would definitely add besides the Billy Squier song already referenced, but three that have grown on me over the intervening years are Mariah Carey's "Joy to the World," with its mashup of the traditional hymn and the Three Dog Night song of the same title (as I mentioned before, I'd own a lot more Mariah Carey records - rather than just the Christmas album - if she'd have tried her hand at more songs in that old-school Motown style); Bing Crosby's "Silver Bells," which of course is a New York City classic; and Jimi Hendrix's instrumental mashup of "Little Drummer Boy" and "Silent Night":
As for the worst Christmas songs? My least favorite has to be "Santa Baby," especially the Madonna version that manages to be both cloying and inappropriate at the same time. But the award for the song that suffers the most from repetition is Paul McCartney's "Simply Having A Wonderful Christmastime," which is a pleasant little jingle to start with, but the song drives the chorus into the ground, and then its repetition over the month leading up to Christmas is enough to drive anyone around the bend.