So why is a Scrooge like me writing a blog post about holiday film scores when I’m usually so down on the season? Because I needed a topic for this month’s “9 on the 9th” post. And because the best kind of holiday score captures that indefinable, and probably non-existent, Norman Rockwell-like quality that can only be found in the movies. Do your best to ignore my Grinch-like tendencies and enjoy 9 of my favorite holiday scores.
9. WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) – Irving Berlin
Not surprisingly, I have very few holiday traditions. But watching WHITE CHRISTMAS on Christmas Eve is one of them. As a child, the film played at midnight Christmas morning on Channel 8. Since I couldn’t sleep, the film was a way to pass the time while I waited for 7 a.m., the earliest we dared wake our parents to open presents. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play famous entertainers who hire sisters Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen for a Christmas show to help their aging ex-WWII sergeant (Dean Jagger) and his struggling ski resort in Vermont. Der Bingle looks pissed most of the time, Danny Kaye needs a Valium, Rosemary Clooney looks like she’d rather be anyplace else, and Vera Ellen, well, she’s Vera Ellen. The production numbers are over-the-top and totally unbelievable, especially given the stage of a Vermont barn. The songs aren’t even top-tier Irving Berlin, except for maybe “Sisters” and the classic title song. And yet I love every tuneful, Technicolor moment of it.
8. THE LITTLEST ANGEL (1969) – Joseph A. Howard
Along with Rudolph, the Grinch, and the Miser Brothers (Heat and Snow, for those of you who don’t know), Johnny Whitaker’s Littlest Angel is a major Christmas memory from my childhood. I was seven when the special aired on TV, and I don’t think I’ve seen it since, but I can still hum many of the songs. Whitaker plays a shepherd who dies on his 8th birthday. His guardian angel, Patience (Fred Gwynne), must help him adjust to life in the hereafter. Other notables in the cast included E. G. Marshall as God, and Cab Calloway and Tony Randall as angels. But it was my crush on the angelic Connie Stevens and her rousing “You Can Fly” that buoy my memories of the show. While Howard’s songs aren’t classics like some other holiday specials of the period, they have a special place in my heart. I kept that gatefold LP for years. I wish I still had it.
7. JOYEUX NOEL (2005) – Philippe Rombi
Despite its title, this is by no means a holiday film. This Oscar-nominated foreign film concerns the true story of the French, Scottish and German armies who called an informal and unauthorized truce on Christmas Eve 1914, right in the middle of the First World War. When it’s not focusing on the drama of war, Rombi’s somber and moving score soars with genuine emotion. The beautiful main theme, “I’m Dreaming of Home,” gets right to the heart of the story–soldiers stuck on the front away from their families. Since I moved from Texas in 1991, I think I’ve spent four, maybe five, Christmases at home. Money has often been an issue, I hate traveling during that time because of the crowds, and Christmas with my family is always tense. And yet, even though I always spend the day with friends, there’s still a part of me that wishes I was home surrounded by my loving dysfunctional clan. If I’m feeling particularly lonely this holiday season, this will be the score I listen to for a good old-fashioned Christmas cry.
6. HOME ALONE (1990) – John Williams
It took me 17 years before I actually sat down and watched HOME ALONE. When the film was released, Macaulay Culkin’s screaming, mugging face was everywhere. And audiences ate it up. It became a surprise hit and the number one film of the year. Little did I know how affecting Culkin’s performance was, at least when he stopped mugging. Adding to the emotional payoff of the film was Williams’s excellent score. I couldn’t believe it when Williams garnered an Oscar nomination for the score, but it was richly deserved. From the rousing “Holiday Flight” to the sneaky theme for Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern’s bumbling thieves, the score is rich with emotion and holiday cheer. But it is the Oscar-nominated song “Somewhere In My Memory” that encapsulates the poignancy of the story.
5. HOME ALONE 2: LOST IN NEW YORK (1992) – John Williams
Kevin McCallister’s family is so stupid that they lose him at the airport and this time he ends up on the streets of Manhattan. There are two possible reasons for this: A) They didn’t want the little brat on vacation with them in Miami any more than I would, or B) they saw dollar signs like the Hollywood execs who quickly greenlit a sequel after the original’s surprising box office receipts. I didn’t bother with the sequel, but once again Williams composed a score that is arguably even richer than the first one. This time around, he builds upon the three main themes from the first score and adds a whole treasure of new themes on top of it, including the lovely carol “Christmas Star” and the rousing choral song, “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.”
4. THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1947) – Hugo Friedhofer
I don’t get the appeal of Loretta Young. Her simpering, milquetoast performance takes away from the joy of watching Cary Grant as an angel sent back to earth to help David Niven’s priest, who’s more intent on raising the funds for a new cathedral than paying attention to his neglected wife. But not even Loretta can detract from Hugo Friedhofer’s beautiful score. An angelic chorus, ecclesiastical harmonies, Friedhofer’s excellent string writing, and a touch of magic contribute to this Golden Age Oscar-nominated gem. Though I prefer watching the Whitney Houston-Denzel Washington remake, THE PREACHER’S WIFE (so much for my street cred), Hans Zimmer’s score doesn’t hold a candle to Friedhofer’s original (though many of the Whitney Houston songs are quite lovely).
3. BLIZZARD (2004) – Mark McKenzie
I’ve never seen this TV movie (at least it was in the U.S.) about a young girl and some magical reindeer. And I’m almost afraid to, for fear it won’t match the wondrous images that Mark McKenzie’s magical score conjures in my mind. Whether the music is sweetly earthbound or taking flight, there’s thankfully nary a Christmas carol in sight. BLIZZARD may come as close to a perfect, wholly original holiday score as you’ll find. If the music sounds familiar, you probably recognize it from underscoring numerous film montages at Oscar ceremonies over the years.
2. ELOISE AT CHRISTMASTIME (2003) – Bruce Broughton
Kay Thompson’s classic children’s character, Eloise, a bratty little girl and her adventures at the Plaza Hotel, inspired two charming TV movies in 2003. The first, ELOISE AT THE PLAZA, was such a success in the spring that ELOISE AT CHRISTMASTIME was on the air by November. Bruce Broughton won back-to-back Emmys for both scores and deservedly so. Broughton cleverly weaves Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker music throughout his CHRISTMASTIME score, mixing it with his charming theme for Eloise from the first score, as well as composing some charming new themes as well. Broughton’s utterly delightful score conveys the joy of the season (at least the joy that most people seem to feel) without being overly sentimental. While the films occasionally has a case of the cutes, Sofia Vassilieva’s Eloise is ultimately such a pain in the ass that the movies have a bite to them, making the emotional payoffs, both dramatically and musically, that much richer. Who knew bratty little girls would be the perfect antidote to Christmas cheer?
1. A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (1965) – Vince Guaraldi
I was three years old when this first aired on CBS and every frame, line of dialogue, and note of music is embedded in my psyche. It probably won’t surprise you that I identify with Charlie Brown and his holiday predicament of trying to understand the true meaning of Christmas. The brilliance of Charles Schultz is how he used his characters to tap into a universal human element that works whether you’re 6 or 60, or anywhere in between. But Peanuts wouldn’t be Peanuts without Vince Guaraldi’s distinctive music. If I have to listen to Christmas carols, I want them filtered through Guaraldi’s infectious jazz sensibilities. Tiny Tim can suck it. Give me Chuck, Linus, Lucy, Schroeder, Snoopy, Pig Pen, and that spindly tree. That’s Christmas to me.