Film/Arts/Satire*
(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, November 24, 2017

MD Top 10: Christmas Movie Musical Numbers



Thanksgiving weekend can be a feast for the senses, beginning with the tastes and aromas of a festive family feast. You'll need a sharp eye and a quick touch for the ensuing shopping sprees on Black Friday. And then just open your ears and you'll hear it all around you: Christmas music!


Bridging one holiday to the next, Christmas music signals it's time to start rolling out the annual traditions of the season, from tree decorating to gift wrapping to, that's right, Christmas movie watching! Which is all just an elaborate lead in to:  

Movie Dearest presents (in chronological order) our Top 10 Christmas Movie Musical Numbers!

1. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)


When one hears "musical number" you think of hordes of hoofers in flashy costumes dancing their feet off on sparkly sets while the camera spins around them. But sometimes the simple approach is best, such as just pointing the camera at the singer and letting them sing their heart out, as Vincente Millinelli did in this perennial favorite. Of course, it helps if the singer is Judy Garland, who's Esther plaintively warbles Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin's soon-to-be-classic to a weepy Margaret O'Brien as her sister Tootie. "Have Yourself..." has since gained the reputation as being the most depressing Christmas song ever, so it's no wonder that immediately after Esther finishes it, little Tootie runs off and beats the crap out of a couple snowmen.

2. "Silver Bells" from The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)


Bet you didn't know that this charming yuletide tune, by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, was from a movie, right? It's just one of many cases where a song has outlived the movie that introduced it, in this case a Bob Hope gangster comedy set in a Damon Runyan-esque New York City. The number is set within the bustling "city sidewalks, busy sidewalks" during "Christmastime in the city", where Hope (in a sorry-looking Santa beard) and his sweetheart Marilyn Maxwell (his other beard?) stroll along and are joined in the song by passersby, with Hope mugging as usual all along the way (he even flirts with a policeman!). And yes, that is William "Fred Mertz" Frawley as the grumpy street Santa at the start of the scene.

3. "White Christmas" from White Christmas (1954)


Of course, Irving Berlin's all-time bestseller was first introduced in 1942's Holiday Inn (and won the Academy Award that year for Best Original Song), but it got upgraded from a simple sing-along at the piano to the full-fledged finale twelve years later in this eponymous pseudo-remake. Bing Crosby is joined by co-stars Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen (dubbed by Trudy Stevens), as well as a tiny troupe of ballerinas, as they croon about "treetops glistening" and "sleigh bells in the snow". Yes, there's a lot of red velvet and white marabou going on up on that stage, but at this time of year it's hard to resist such nostalgic, albeit cornball, sentimentality. May all your Christmases be white indeed.

4. "We Need a Little Christmas" from Mame (1974)


Ah, Lucy. For years on the I Love Lucy show we thought you were just funning us with your out-of-tune shrills, but alas, it turned out you really couldn't sing. Or, several thousand cigarettes later, at least you couldn't by the time this wholly ill-conceived silver screen adaptation of Jerry Herman's Broadway musical decided to (mis)cast you as the larger-than-life Auntie Mame. Nevertheless, this number is fascinating to watch in a "just... can't... look away" sort of way, from the dull costuming (why is Mame in a nun habit?) to the imbecilic choreography (did they really need to spend half the song "decorating" poor, pathetic Agnes Gooch?). But then Mame dons that creepy as hell Santa Claus death mask and the whole thing is elevated to a whole other level of "WTF".

5. "It Feels Like Christmas" from The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)


In this, the like bazillionth filmed version of Charles Dickens' holiday ghost story, most of the familiar Muppets are relegated to minor roles while the juicy parts – namely the three Spirits of Christmas – were "cast" with original creations. So, instead of say, Fozzie Bear as the Ghost of Christmas Present, we get... a ginger bear! Burly, boisterous and vaguely Santa-ish, this jolly ol' fellow (voiced by longtime Muppeteer Jerry Nelson) introduces Michael Caine's Ebenezer Scrooge to the joys of the season, who at one point forgets his miserly ways and gets jiggy with it. Paul Williams, who was Oscar nominated for co-composing the songs for the original Muppet Movie, returned to contribute new Carols for this Christmas.

6. "What's This?" from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)


Fans of this stop-motion animated cult favorite have long argued over "is it a Halloween movie, or a Christmas movie?" This sleigh-belled ballad, written and performed by Tim Burton mainstay Danny Elfman, is a strong argument for the latter. Diametrically opposed to the film's spooky opening number "This is Halloween", "What's This?" is a candy-colored kaleidoscope of Christmasy cheer, with our hero Jack Skellington gleefully discovering all new kinds of tricks and treats. But then again, lyrics such as "There are children throwing snowballs/Instead of throwing heads/They're busy building toys/And absolutely no one's dead" swing the argument back to the pro-Halloween side. So here you have it, the film's whole thematic dichotomy, wrapped up in one catchy three-minute tune.

7. "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" from Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)


Voice acting legend Thurl Ravenscroft (of Tony the Tiger and Disney's Haunted Mansion fame) memorably sung this one in the 1966 cartoon classic, but here the Grinch (a heavily made up Jim Carrey) croaks it out himself. Regardless of the fact that there is no actual mention of Christmas or holidays or even snow, "You're a Mean One" (music by Albert Hague and lyrics by Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss himself) has become a seasonal standard anyway, even with its mentions of seasick crocodiles and termite-infested teeth. Fun Fact: The soundtrack album for the animated television special won a Grammy for Best Album for Children in 1968. The recipient of the award? Horror film icon Boris Karloff, who voiced the original Grinch.

8. "Turkey Lurkey Time" from Camp (2003)


The camp of the title is Camp Ovation, a summer retreat for young performing arts students, which prompts the question "how is there a Christmas song in a movie set during the summer?" Well, among the many musicals the camp stages (seriously, how did they afford the rights for all of them anyway?) is the 1968 Burt Bacharach/Hal David stage musical adaptation of 1960's Best Picture Oscar winner The Apartment titled Promises, Promises. This Act I closer takes place during the office Christmas party, with three bubbly secretaries (Alana Allen, Dequina Moore and Tracee Beazer) providing the entertainment, which escalates from a perky trio to a full-blown office blowout and climaxes with a hand flailing finale set to the ebulliently incessant belting of "Jingle bells! Jingle bells!". As seen here in Camp, the number is a considerably impressive recreation of the original Broadway "Turkey Lurkey" as frenetic-ly choreographed by Michael Bennett, later of A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls fame.

(By the by, if this list was ranked, this one would easily be in the number one spot.)

9. "Jingle Bell Rock" from Mean Girls (2004)


As a quartet of... sexy? Slutty? Skanky? Santa's helpers, the "Plastics" (Lacey Chabert as Gretchen, Rachel McAdams as Regina, Lindsay Lohan as Cady and Amanda Seyfried as Karen) slink along to a recording of this pop X-mas ditty (written by Joe Beal and Jim Boothe) for their Winter Talent Show act... that is, until Gretchen kicks the boombox off the stage (um, why doesn't the school auditorium have a sound system?). New girl Cady saves the day though when she starts singing live, and the audience quickly joins in for a merry sing along as the "mean girls" go on to mix and a-mingle their jingling feet. This scene has become so popular that all one has to do is search for "jingle bell rock mean girls" on YouTube to find a bevy of fan-made tribute videos, including a few by "mean boys".

10. "Toyland" from Tangerine (2015)


We come full circle for our last and most recent Christmas movie musical number. Like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", this melancholy arrangement of the usually peppier "Toyland" (composed by Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough for their 1903 children's operetta Babes in Toyland) is tinged with forlorn sadness. In the scenes leading up to this moment, sassy streetwalker Alexandra (Mya Taylor, who became the first transgender actress to win a major film award with her 2016 Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female for her performance here) is seen tirelessly promoting her Christmas Eve singing gig at a local cocktail lounge. But it is all to no avail, as she ends up performing to a mostly empty bar. Taylor's haunting vocals add to the bittersweet air, yet she seems to gently acknowledge the irony of her situation through such lyrics as "Little girl and boy land/While you dwell within it/You are ever happy there".

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