The festive period is here once again and the team have donned their Christmas jumpers to bring you the finest selection of films. As Mark Connelly describes, representations of Christmas on screen act as ‘emotional shorthand to impart mood and mise en scène to the viewer’ and can often ‘play a role in films not actually centred on the season’ (2000: 6). Bearing this in mind, we have each chosen films that in some way relate to Christmas or are considered festive favourites. And we have also thrown in some more obscure titles. The films are further connected by their interesting or evocative use of colour and cover our research themes and period.
So – sit back, relax with a mince pie and glass of mulled wine and enjoy!
Scrooge (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951)
A Christmas Carol remains a firm holiday favourite with many screen adaptations of the classic novel by Charles Dickens in existence. The 1951 film, released as Scrooge in the UK, features Alastair Sim as the curmudgeonly miser who encounters a host of supernatural beings on his journey to redemption. The black and white version was later released in colour in 1989, providing a great opportunity for comparative analysis. The process of ‘colourisation’ was developed in the early 1980s and used computer technology to transform black and white motion pictures into colour videotapes. As an article from the SMPTE journal in July 1984 announced, this ‘newly developed process’ was ‘designed for television networks and the video rental market’ (1984: 632).
Yet, adding colour to a well-loved black and white classic is up for debate and the colourisation process has certainly divided opinion over the years.
My own memories of Scrooge are very much tied to the black and white original; watching it as a child and being scared witless by the howling laments of Jacob Marley’s ghost (Michael Hordern). In the colourised version, this particular sequence seems to have less dramatic impact. Marley still looks like a ghost as we can just about see through his pale green frock coat. However, his whole face, hair and body appears more pronounced when compared to the black and white image. In the original version, the spectral effect is more striking, as Marley’s ghostly figure fades into the background. The added colour also softens the image when compared to the stark monochrome interiors of Scrooge’s chamber. This makes the sequence less chilling, replacing dark shadows with luminous light which occasionally washes out the entire image. The meaning of the narrative is still very much apparent but the ghostly effect has been lost slightly…
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter R. Hunt, 1969)
Despite being partly set (and released) at Christmas, this Bond film’s festive elements are often ignored in favour of other more famous elements of the film – George Lazenby’s performance, Diana Rigg’s strong “Bond girl”, the final heart-breaking ending, Louis Armstrong’s theme song, the extensive (and much echoed) snow chase scenes, etc. The main narrative use of Christmas comes when Lazenby’s Bond, in the guise of genealogist Hilary Bray, visits Blofeld’s clinic at the top of Piz Gloria in Switzerland. The 12 women dubbed Blofeld’s ‘Angels of Death’ are at the clinic over Christmas, and we see them gathered around a Christmas tree, opening presents wrapped in lurid purple paper.
However, this scene shown above is the more intriguing in terms of the film’s use of Christmas: as Blofeld reveals Bond’s cover is blown, and teases details of his latest diabolical plan, the camera uses shots that frame the pair (and the discussion) in relation to a giant green Christmas tree, decked in gold tinsel. In certain shots, it is impossible to ignore this tree. It dominates the mise-en-scene, often having the same screen ratio as Bond and Blofeld (each of them arrayed across a third of the wide screen). Unlike other examples, the use of the colourful tree seems to move beyond a simple narrative role that identified a specific time of year – but to what purpose? Is this richly hued tree (something that was once alive, but is now dead – and brightly decorated – due to mankind’s interference) linked to Blofeld’s plans to use his (unsuspecting) ‘Angels’ to spread bacterial plagues that will wipe out plant life? Or is it just a nice piece of set design that director Peter Hunt enjoyed shooting around? When is a Christmas tree just a Christmas tree?
We’ll leave that for you to decide…
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (Curtis Harrington, 1971)
A disturbing Christmas film which incorporates all of the essential elements for an effectively haunting festive tale. Set in 1920s England, the film stars Shelley Winters as the eponymous Auntie Roo, a former star of vaudeville in the US, who welcomes children from the local orphanage into her mansion home every Christmas. Unbeknownst to the children, Roo keeps the decomposed body of her young daughter Catherine hidden in the former nursery, conducting regular evening séances with psychic Mr Benton in an attempt to reconnect with the dead girl’s spirit. Two of the youngsters joining in with the festivities are siblings Katy and Christopher (the latter played by Mark Lester) who believe themselves to be a real-life Hansel and Gretel, with Roo’s obsession with Katy apparently signalling their eventual demise as fodder for their witch of a host.
With an ending befitting the original Hans Christian Andersen tale, the film presents a true ‘Quality Street’ Christmas during Interwar Britain with vibrant tinsel and baubles adorning shop fronts up and down the high street full of the hustle and bustle of last-minute shoppers. Roo’s home is dressed throughout with festive red and green decorations, while cheerfully coloured sweets and toffee apples are enjoyed by the children who sit around an open fire at the feet of their hostess while she reads aloud from ‘The Night Before Christmas’. Shelley Winters’ costumes are also in keeping with the traditional look to the film, and her character’s vaudeville past, with garments of regal purples and reds. One such purple gown is worn by Roo during a séance in which Benton tells her ‘A very strong aura tonight … very, very purple’ which, we are told, represents ‘the colour of desire. It means your needs are great.’ Certainly Roo’s desire to bring her daughter back to life are apparent in her kidnapping of Katy who becomes a substitute for Catherine as a result of a flashback revealing the cause of her death.
While the remainder of the film is shot in colour, the sequence in which we see a flashback to Roo’s daughter falling to her death from the top of the stairs is shot in black-and-white, providing the scene a ghostly quality along the lines of The Innocents (1961) and The Haunting (1963). This combination of colour and B&W has been employed cinematically for a variety of aesthetic purposes although it is used here specifically to denote events of the past. Given that the choice to use monochrome for flashbacks such as this often signifies a time before the mainstream use of colour in cinema, in this instance, as the entirety of the film is set in the pre-Technicolor period, the lack of colour can be seen as more a comment upon Roo’s fading memory of her daughter as she desperately grasps at any opportunity to keep her memory alive.
The 14 (David Hemmings, 1973)
The Christmas sequence in The 14 (aka Existence) highlights the determination of a group of children to stay together following the death of their mother and threat of dispersion into care homes. Jack Wild plays Reg, the eldest, who with his girlfriend Reena (Cheryl Hall), organizes a makeshift Christmas for his siblings and Reena’s child, at their old terraced house in London’s East End after it has been boarded up and declared derelict. The family’s Christmas is made all the more special because of being achieved in adversity. One of the children organizes the escape of his siblings from a care home so they can all gather in the old house. The festive occasion acquires emotional intensity by showing the children’s efforts to assemble the trappings of Christmas, stealing what they can and making do with candles, a fire and engorging on the gift of a roast turkey.
The sequence is shot (by cinematographer Ousama Rawi) very low-key since the house is lit solely by firelight and candles. But the bright colours of the children’s party hats flickering in the candlelight and the intermittent glimmer of tinsel gives the sequence a magical aura, as the children experience a few hours of pleasure and togetherness that remind them of the past. Reg and Reena oversee the festivities like caring ‘parents’ who relish the experience of familial intensity that is all the more powerful because of its illicit, temporary nature. The generally close camerawork gives the sequence an intimate mood which combined with the soundtrack contributes to the children’s touching repetition of the Christmas rituals they may never share together again.
Comfort and Joy (Bill Forsyth, 1984)
Often overlooked, not least because of its proximity to two particularly well-regarded Forsyth films (Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero), this is another odd and bittersweet comic film that gets its place on the list due to its Christmas setting. From its opening shots of children gazing at a shop window display featuring multiple red-suited Santa dolls, and then the garish pink-red decorations that cascade down the columns in a Glasgow department store, the colours of Christmas are omnipresent in design of this film. Captured by cinematographer Chris Menges (whom director Bill Forsyth describes as ‘a cinematic artist’), Christmas isn’t just a colourful backdrop, it is crucial to the film’s themes about local radio DJ Alan ‘Dickie’ Bird (Bill Patterson) struggling to find new meaning in his life after being dumped by his girlfriend. He is a lonely figure in many early shots, adrift in the otherwise colourful bustling department store; isolated in his expensive red car as he drives through night-time Glasgow streets, and in the largely grey-and-glass walls of the radio studio itself. His role in brokering a peace between two rival ice cream firms in Glasgow (the blue-white vans of Mr Bunny and the red-white vans of Mr McCool) is more comic than competent, but the firms declare it a miracle (presumably of the Christmas variety). The final scene, as Alan sits in the radio studio on Christmas afternoon, sees him surrounded not by the coloured flickering of Christmas tree lights, but the flashing yellow of cart machines and red ‘On Air’ studio lights, and a splash of orange Irn Bru in his bottle. As he speaks to his listeners, perhaps to other lonely and isolated people, he seems to have accepted his new life and situation.
As Forsyth himself quipped towards the end of 1983: ‘there’s nothing as good and warm and cosy and joyous as finishing a film just before Christmas’.
Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
This film’s part-Orwellian nightmare, part-bureaucratic, part-capitalist satire is emphasised by its Christmas setting, yet in its earliest development and script stages, Christmas was not mentioned at all. Given conflicting memories from the production crew, it’s not entirely certain when Christmas was added – but watching the film today, it is hard to imagine it without its festive trappings.
Take its opening sequence of an unsuspecting family, whose small apartment is (momentarily) brightened by the purple and yellow lights on a Christmas tree, and as a little girl asks how Santa Claus can get into their house without a chimney… With a tinkle of (jingle) bells, a paramilitary unit explode a hole in the ceiling (which knocks down some rather sad red-and-purple paper chains) and pour in to arrest the father, and thus set the bureaucratic plot into motion. From an apparently happy moment of Scrooge abandoning his miserly ways, the film uses Christmas as a contrast and comment on its bleak narrative.
Given its focus on (and criticism of) conformity and capitalism, the film undercuts and satirises a very specific series of commercialised Christmas images and icons: the avuncular-sinister Mr Helpmann (Peter Vaughn) appears in a red Santa Claus suit; Sam Lowry (Jonathan Price) keeps getting the same brightly wrapped Christmas presents; silver-decked Christmas trees glisten in the background at society dinners; and in the final (dream) escape, Sam struggles through streets lit by green neon Christmas trees and red neon Santa signs. Given the often grey-black monotony of the rest of Sam’s life, these glimpses of Christmas colour are both a standout and a reminder that in the world of Brazil, very little is as it first appears…