A great Christmas movie that’s not on any list but mine

So, Thanksgiving, right? I feel under some pressure to do a “what I’m thankful for” post, so here it goes…

Ha ha! I almost had you, didn’t I? I think you guys know me better than that.

‘Tis the season for “top Christmas movie lists.” Let’s talk about that.

Do we really need to be told that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is something people watch? And if you’re a fan of “A Christmas Story,” skip it this year. Instead, if you can find it, check out the darker, edgier and so much funnier “Phantom of the Open Hearth,” which aired on PBS in the 1970s and is the original movie based on the Jean Shepherd essay that the Christmas movie later came from.

My friend Brian Ruel and I saw “A Christmas Story” when it first came out. He had to review it for the late, great Biddeford Journal-Tribune, which no longer exists, and we saw it in an afternoon showing at the Cines 5 theater in Biddeford, which had just opened, but also no longer exists. When it ended we both said something like, “Wow, they really watered down ‘Phantom of the Open Hearth.'”

But I digress.

Want to see a Christmas movie you haven’t seen a zillion times? Watch “Desk Set.” I downloaded it from Amazon Prime Video — I also have it on DVD, but it was easier to buy it from a streaming service than to hook the DVD player back up.

A man and a woman in 1950s clothing on a balcony, with the man holding a bottle of champagne.The 1957 Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn film has a snappy Henry and Phoebe Ephron script that’ll soak into you like heavily spiked egg nog in front of a fire.

The movie begins in November and you can feel that pre-Christmas giddiness that you’re all probably feeling at this very moment. Its climatic scene is one of those boozy office-shredding Christmas parties that have gone the way of the Journal-Tribune, Cines 5 and “Phanton of the Open Hearth.”

The biggest gifts are some classic Tracy-Hepburn scenes, including lunch on a roof early in the movie and a bottle of champagne and some whip-smart flirting in the research stacks during the Christmas party.

But the best is a dinner scene at Hepburn’s apartment involving her, Tracy, Gig Young and a monogrammed robe Hepburn was going to give Young for Christmas. The scene is perfect in every way, and I’d put it up against anything from “Elf” or whatever else people put on their “best Christmas movies list.”

There aren’t any fart jokes, excrement in the punch bowl, the dog getting electrocuted by Christmas lights. It’s not about a guy trashing his dreams and resigning himself to a life in a go-nowhere job because everyone in his town is too hapless to get out of their own way if he isn’t there to hold their hands. Sorry, maybe I’ve seen that one too many times.

The technology aspects of the plot — the movie was bankrolled by IBM — may seem dated, but it’s really not. The gals in the research department of a TV station are afraid a computer is going to take their jobs. When I turned the movie off, I switched on an episode of “Superstore,” and the gang at the store was afraid a new robot that cleans floors and stocks shelves was going to take over their jobs. Ditto for some of the gender issues — sure they’re through a 62-year-old lens, but things haven’t changed nearly as much as they should have.

Anyway, the plot is secondary to what’s going on, if you know what I mean.

Wow, not to interrupt, but I just saw on TV that the HLN Thanksgiving “Forensic Files” marathon begins at midnight. It’s going to be a late night for this mashed potato!

Speaking of Thanksgiving, I heard someone say recently that there are “no good books” centered around Thanksgiving. Not for nothing, but my second Bernie O’Dea mystery, NO NEWS IS BAD NEWS, has a climatic Thanksgiving Day scene, where an uncooked turkey rotting on a counter is not even in the top five of bad things that happen. And, not to brag or anything, but a reader at an author talk this summer told me I ruined Thanksgiving for them forever.

You know? I know I said this wasn’t going to be some sappy post about what I’m thankful for, but man — from “Desk Set” to “Forensic Files” to “Hey! I’m a writer who does it well enough to ruin holidays for strangers!” — if I were the kind of person who said said things like “I’m truly blessed” I’d say it.

Happy Thanksgiving folks!

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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3 Responses to A great Christmas movie that’s not on any list but mine

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great post, Maureen. Your cynical voice shines through, along with great information and a reporter’s research acumen. Thank you!


  2. kaitlynkathy says:

    One of my favorite movies, too, Maureen. Great script and wonderful cast. Hadn’t thought about it being set at Christmas. Now I’m going to have to dig out the DVD and watch it again.

  3. My favorite Christmas movies run the gamut from classic to mesmerizing. To wit: Love the old original “Christmas Carol” with Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. Never miss it!

    At the other end of the spectrum, Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” is a film many think is painfully slow. But not me. The excruciatingly slow pace actually enhances the mystery, and a classic mystery it is, about the death of a prostitute, giving the viewer time to process what is said and what occurs in near real time. Clues are painted along the way, and bizarre characters come and go. Sexual overtones color all the scenes, and the Christmas decorations and lights in almost every scene provide a festive contrast to the very dark plot.

    Here is some added background info from bustle.com:
    “Eyes Wide Shut, the phrase itself, is a calling card among secret societies, meaning ‘my eyes are shut to your misdeeds, brother.’ This anonymity is required of the participants, otherwise the society’s moneyed elite would be revealed.” (Once you watch this movie, you will understand the reference.)

    I highly recommend this movie to anyone who wants to watch a true Christmas mystery. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman star, and a cameo of Alan Cumming as the hotel clerk is memorable.

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