• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Monday, December 24, 2012

    Heavenly Holiday Film Classics

    Heavenly Holiday Film Classics is a collection of six lesser known Christmas films from days gone past. The majority go back to the fifties and sixties but at least one has their roots even further back. As a result these films are hard to get hold of and Festival Films has done a great service by collecting them and making them more widely available. But make no mistake, the films have not been digitally remastered or restored and Festival Films make no such claim.

    Silent Night:A Story of the Christmas Carol (1953)
    The first of two films on this DVD to look at the story of how "Silent Night" was written. This is the later film which focuses on the spread of the carol after an organ repair man chances upon the song in Oberndorf. Whilst this legend is popular, there's not a great deal pf evidence for it, in fact Wikipedia cites Silent Night historian Renate Ebeling-Winkler Berenguer as tracking this part of the story back only as far as 1965 - 12 years after this film (though it also mentions a 1947 play).

    Christmas is Magic (1953)
    Christmas is Magic is probably my least favourite of the six films on this DVD, although even then it's a nice film to look at even if the plot and the dialogue are rather weak. Frances Rafferty plays Julie, a young widow about to get remarried to the effortlessly grumpy, Christmas cynic, Brad. It's in this pairing that the plot first falters, aside from being stable, it's hard to really see what he has to offer her. Julie and her son Sonny meet an amnesiac war veteran by the Christmas tree in town, and when his Christmas cheer warms their hearts they welcome into their homes. If you're the type that loves Christmas schmaltz laid on thick then there's a chance you might enjoy this. This visuals do have a certain something. Unfortunately, on this one, I'm with Brad.

    Star of Bethlehem (1956)
    Star of Bethlehem (1956) is a film I've known about for quite some time, and been meaning to see, but never quite got around to it. It is one of the films available at the BFI's mediatheques. The original film apparently dates back to 1921, being the work of the German silhouette-animator Charlotte "Lotte" Reiniger (June 2, 1899 -- June 19, 1981). But in 1956 Cathedral Films re-released with narration in English.

    The film itself is simply, but effectively made. Black silhouetted characters move in the foreground contrasting starkly with the film's coloured backgrounds. The simplicity of the medium should not be mistaken for a lack of sophistication however. The graceful, skillful movements are capable of evoking genuine feeling, the birth scene, for example, evokes surprising intimacy. The one notable change in style is the appearance of the angels to the shepherds. In contrast to the rest of the film, he its the angels who light up against a dark background.

    The story is straight forwardly told, and whilst the medium and voiceover are both a little dated, younger children will still enjoy it. My 4 year old and 6 year old did at any rate.

    Three Young Kings (1956)
    Perhaps the best of the six films on offer here is Three Young Kings by director Richard Kinon. Kings tells the tale of three boys from the mission school who have the honour of playing the wise men in the village's traditional present-giving ritual. Parents provide presents for their children via the school and the eldest three children don magi costumes and go round the richer parts of town dishing round their gifts. But this year the trio take a short cut through the poorest part of the village and end up giving the presents away to those children instead - most of whom will not get presents. The pivotal scene is a delight with the three boys switching from mild annoyance at being inconvenienced to handing round other children's presents with gleeful abandon, but it's the final scene with echoes of the still-to-be-made Spartacus and 12 Angry Men in the mix that clinches it. The boy's main opponent is possibly a little too cartoon-like for my liking, but that fails to rob the story of it's genuine emotional wallop that makes it the film of all these likely to become a stable (sic.) of Christmas viewing in the Page household for years to come.

    Star of Bethlehem (1954)
    Star of Bethlehem (1954) was a pet project of actor James Mason who produced, directed and narrated the film and cast his own daughter as Mary.

    It's an funny old project. The first half of the film consists of Mason dully narrating the nativity account from Luke. It's not helped by the use of a (now) fairly archaic translation, but Mason's famous voice is renders the story dull by its lack of intonation.

    The second half however is very different, a charming adaptation of the story using children. Child actors can be a real hit-or-miss affair but these children do a decent job of playing their roles without swinging to far into honey-coated sentimentality. I'm not sure my kids would sit through the first half of this film again, but they would certainly re-watch the second part.

    Starlight Night (1939)
    The second "Silent Night" origins storyline the collection is actually the elder filmed in pre-war Austria in 1939. The timing of the film would have made it strongly political as it draws out parallels between Napolean's forced conscription in 1811 and similar events in the austria of their time, but its focus is more on the need for reconciliation once the conflict is over. These debates are focussed in on a single estranged family - a man who having lost his son in the hostilities can't forgive his daughter for marrying a survivor, not least because he is also the son of a survivor from a previous forced conscription. Even the birth of a grandson fails to melt the old man's heart. What is melting however is the snow above the young couple's house in the mountains, leaving the three of them homeless the night before Christmas.

    Finding the family bedding down in a nativity-esque stable Father Mohr decides to take action, writing a song to accompany his homily on the scandal of unforgiveness and estrangement and when he teams u with Franz Gruber the world's most well loved Christmas Carol is born, leaving the old man defenceless to his grandson's advances. At times it's a little forced, but, I must admit, I'm a sucker for stories of reconciliation and, not for the first time whilst watching this collection of films, the odd tear might have been shed.


    All in all then an interesting mix of films with different degrees of quality effectiveness, emotion and religious content and for the completists, or those keen for a bit of nostalgic content this would make a great addition to your Christmas film collection.

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