This season, film writer/historian Jeremy Arnold will be on hand at the Aero Theatre to present a series of holiday films. Besides introducing the programs, he will also sign copies of his new book, Turner Classic Movies: Christmas in the Movies.
On December 20, Arnold will present the acclaimed drama The Lion in Winter, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Set in 1183, it stars Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Katharine Hepburn as his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine reuniting for the holidays.
Arnold returns on December 21 for a double bill of the 30th anniversary of the blockbuster action-flick Die Hard, starring Bruce Willis, and the 1950 rarity The Trail of Robin Hood starring Roy Rogers. The latter has been restored in 4K by Paramount Archives from the original 35mm Trucolor negatives and positive separations.
And on December 22, he’ll be presenting the most traditional of the quartet: Vincente Minnelli’s magical 1944 Technicolor musical Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland, Tom Drake, and Margaret O’Brien, who won a juvenile Oscar for her endearing performance.
A Cinematheque correspondent recently chatted with Arnold about Christmas movies and what makes these four films important entries in the genre.
What makes a film a Christmas movie?
Jeremy Arnold: It’s a movie in which Christmas or the holiday season plays a meaningful role in the story. It gives our experience of the story meaning. It’s just not the backdrop or a setting, but there’s some aspect of the season and that can encompass positives and negatives, highs and lows. It can enhance or heighten what the movies are about in the same way that we notice throughout the film. I shouldn’t say throughout the film because there are some movies like Meet Me in St. Louis where they get Christmas at the end.
Speaking of Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland’s rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is such a dramatic high point in the film you forget the entire film isn’t about the holidays.
Jeremy Arnold: I think it’s actually very appropriate that Christmas in that film does happen at the end, because it’s a movie about family and Christmas is the ultimate family time. It makes sense that as a story comes to the climax, that’s when Christmas comes in. I would also say having Judy Garland sing that song would be enough to make it a Christmas movie because it’s so iconic.
Meet Me in St. Louis is the most traditional of the movies you are introducing at the Aero. It’s also the oldest -- it’s 74 years old now. Why is it still relevant to audiences today?
Jeremy Arnold: I think the themes of the film -- the idea of family togetherness, the wistfulness of the past and for an idealized type of family, the anxiety about the family moving and therefore breaking up and losing what it has - those things are relevant to families today. The intensity of the nostalgic view of the family in that film is something that I think we all crave at Christmastime especially.
Also, it’s just a beautifully crafted musical and one of the best musicals ever made. Vincente Minnelli was a genius. It was innovative in using the musical numbers to move the story along and not just stopping for a musical number. Minnelli put a lot of thought into that.
Meet Me in St. Louis shows an idealized family, but the family in The Lion in Winter is completely maladjusted.
Jeremy Arnold: The Lion in Winter I would say is relevant primarily because the cast is so renowned. Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn were great. Katharine Hepburn, of course, is an American icon, a treasure. But also, the supporting cast. It’s Timothy Dalton and Anthony Hopkins' first feature. Anthony Hopkins said he had never been in front of a camera before.
Though it’s a period setting and a costume drama set in a castle in the 12th century, it’s still about a dysfunctional family gathering over Christmas. That is relatable to just about everybody. Everyone has a dysfunctional family to some degree. It’s just that when they say they want to kill each other, they don’t really mean it.
You have more dysfunctional family dynamics with Die Hard.
Jeremy Arnold: It’s a Christmas movie because it begins as one of the most common types of Christmas films, which is some sort of dysfunctional family reuniting over the holidays and trying to work things out. That is what the movie is about until those terrorists enter the film and take over the building. The movie never lets go of those Christmas concerns and it reminds us throughout the dialogue and music and sound effects and various visual tropes that it’s still Christmas Eve and that the movie is still taking place in the world of Christmastime.
That also helps give the film a lightness and a cheeriness. [Director] John McTiernan said that when he first saw the script for Die Hard, it was a very serious, violent, dark political action film. He wanted to lighten it up. He said he wanted to inject a joy into it.
So, they changed the political terrorists into thieves. And who doesn’t like a good heist film? Now Die Hard 2, which is also set at Christmas, I don’t consider a Christmas film because there’s a brutality and unpleasantness to the violence in that film that is quite different from the first Die Hard.
After Die Hard, you are screening the Roy Rogers movie The Trail of Robin Hood. I’m sure that has something to do with the fact that Willis’ John McClane compares himself to Roy Rogers.
Jeremy Arnold: He tells Alan Rickman that he always loved Roy Rogers because of those sequined shirts and he tells Al, the cop, to call him Roy. So, Roy Rogers is very present throughout “Die Hard” in that sense. So, what would be more perfect that seeing a real Roy Rogers Christmas movie?
Trail of Robin Hood may be new to audiences.
Jeremy Arnold: It’s a crazy, wacky story. It exists in its own universe like all Roy Rogers movies do. They look like period Westerns but they’re not because you see modern cars, kitchens and houses. Something about that makes it modern and timeless. It’s not a period film. It’s neither set in the period West nor really in 1950 America. It’s on some other plane altogether and somehow that keeps it constantly relevant. It’s floating around out there in some nondescript time and space and makes it easier to approach, I think.
Does Rogers have a family in the film?
Jeremy Arnold: He doesn’t really have a family in the movie - not a blood family. But when all the other Republic movie stars ride to the rescue toward the end of the film, they do feel like one big family. So, it’s a bunch of real-life Republic Western movie stars all being a family in a Republic Western.
Bring your family or film posse out to see some classic and not-so-classic films at the Aero and Egyptian Theatres this month – click for details!
Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 - March 2016), specializing in classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master's degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times.