The Original Reviews of 10 Classic Christmas Movies

Paramount Home Entertainment
Paramount Home Entertainment

Whether you’re a fan of Buddy the Elf or prefer the retro allure of Bedford Falls, there are certain movies that just make the holidays complete—but not all of them were always so popular. Here’s what the critics originally thought of 10 classic Christmas movies.

1. It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

It seems that the Jimmy Stewart-Donna Reed classic was beloved from the start. Variety was positively ebullient when it reviewed the film on December 18, 1946, saying:

"It’s a Wonderful Life will enjoy just that at the b.o., and eminently deserves to do so. In the wake of the billowing ballyhoo which has preceded the first entry from Liberty Films, will come resurging word-o’-mouth to accelerate the whirring of theatres’ wickets. After a somewhat clammy cycle of psychological pix and a tortured trend of panting propaganda vehicles, the April-air wholesomeness and humanism of this natural bring back vividly the reminder that, essentially, the screen best offers unselfconscious, forthright entertainment."

In fact, Variety’s critic had kind words for everyone. Frank Capra “again proves he can fashion what ordinarily would be homilizing hokum into gleaming, engaging entertainment for all brows—high, low or beetle,” Jimmy Stewart “hasn’t lost a whit of his erstwhile boyish personality (when called to turn it on) and further shows a maturity and depth he seems recently to have acquired,” and Donna Reed “will reach full-fledged stardom with this effort.” He was even impressed with the film's state-of-the-art simulated snow technology.

2. Miracle On 34th Street (1947)

It’s no miracle that this film has endured the decades: Like It’s a Wonderful Life, moviegoers and critics alike have loved the plight of Kris Kringle since its 1947 debut. It was even nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Though it didn’t win that category, Edmund Gwenn won for Best Actor; Valentine Davies won for Best Writing, Original Story; and George Seaton won for Best Writing, Screenplay. It seems the only people who didn’t like the movie were those in the Catholic League of Decency, who downgraded the film to a “B” rating due to the “morally objectionable” fact that the mother was divorced.

3. White Christmas (1954)

Since the smash song “White Christmas” came from Holiday Inn, a 1942 Bing Crosby movie scored by Irving Berlin, everyone had big hopes for White Christmas, a similarly-themed movie that came out 12 years later. Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin were both on board as before, but “Oddly enough,” The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote, “the confection is not so tasty as one might suppose. The flavoring is largely in the line-up and not in the output of the cooks. Everyone works hard at the business of singing, dancing, and cracking jokes, but the stuff that they work with is minor. It doesn't have the old inspiration and spark.” He concedes that the film looks great, in part thanks to “VistaVision,” a then-new process of projecting onto a large screen. “It is too bad that it doesn't hit the eardrums and the funnybone with equal force,” Crowther concluded.

4. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Snoopy and his pals overcame a lot of troubles to make it to the small screen in 1965. Executives didn’t like the slow pace of the show. They didn’t want Linus to recite Bible verses. They hated that there was no laugh track. And they thought having the children be voiced by real children instead of adult voice actors was the worst idea in broadcast history.

Turns out they were wrong about all of it. It’s been estimated that nearly 50 percent of households with televisions tuned in to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas that November, and they’ve been coming back ever since.

5. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) / (2000)

The original TV special got mixed (if apathetic) reviews. One critic shrugged that it was “probably as good as most of the other holiday cartoons. I can’t see why anybody would dislike it.” The Jim Carrey remake wishes the reviews were that kind.

From Entertainment Weekly’s Ty Burr:

The reason Dr. Seuss' original "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" is a slender classic of antimaterialism comes down to one line: "'Maybe Christmas,' he thought, 'doesn't come from a store.'" The season, Ted Geisel was saying, is not about stuff. Ron Howard's "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is all about stuff. From the bric-a-brac Styrofoam sets to the ugly "Twilight Zone" faces of the Whos to Jim Carrey's hairy man-breasts, the movie substitutes audiovisual megakill for emotion. And that's just on screen; act now, and you can buy the "Grinch" video-and-plush-doll pack, or the Collector's Edition DVD with fold-out sets and Faith Hill video, or the Grinch Shower Radio! ... But listen, go ahead and let the kids watch it eight times a week. Just turn up the volume so you can't hear Ted spinning.

6. A Christmas Story (1983)

Siskel and Ebert both loved everything about this Jean Shepherd adaptation. “It’s the kind of movie that everyone can identify with,” Ebert said, and judging by the annual 24-hour marathon, he was right.

7. Scrooged (1988)

You know who’s immune to the charms of Bill Murray? Critics. The Los Angeles Times said the modern-day adaptation of A Christmas Carol was “as over-inflated as its own Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and as funny as a mugging.” All of the fine actors in the movie, critic Sheila Benson mused, were “Wasted, all wasted, some of them under circumstances that make you squirm for them.” And she’s not alone in her opinion. Ebert called it “disquieting, unsettling” and “forced and depressing,” with scenes that are “desperate” and “embarrassing.”

8. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

Suffice it to say that The New York Times movie critic Janet Maslin isn’t among the millions of us who gather around the TV every year to giggle at Clark Griswold and his 25,000 twinkle lights:

The screenplay for "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," by John Hughes, makes no pretense at being anything other than a disjointed collection of running gags; if it weren't for a calendar that marks the approach of Christmas Day, the film would have no forward momentum at all. The film also looks tacky, what with flimsy props and occasionally blurry cinematography, and the direction by Jeremiah S. Chechik displays comic timing that is uncertain at best.

She did see one bright spot in the film, though: “The best thing the new film does is to bring back Cousin Eddie, the wily, scene-stealing slob whose disgusting habits are a source of considerable amusement.”

9. Home Alone (1990)

Ebert was definitely not a fan of Home Alone—though he did like Macaulay Culkin. He wrote:

The plot is so implausible that it makes it hard for us to really care about the plight of the kid. What works in the other direction, however, and almost carries the day, is the gifted performance by young Macaulay Culkin, as Kevin. He's such a confident and gifted little actor that I'd like to see him in a story I could care more about.

"Home Alone" isn't that story. When the burglars invade Kevin's home, they find themselves running a gamut of booby traps so elaborate they could have been concocted by Rube Goldberg—or by the berserk father in "Last House on the Left." Because all plausibility is gone, we sit back, detached, to watch stunt men and special effects guys take over a movie that promised to be the kind of story audiences could identify with.

10. Elf (2003)

Unexpectedly, Ebert really enjoyed Elf—and no one was more surprised by that turn of events than Ebert himself:

If I were to tell you "Elf" stars Will Ferrell as a human named Buddy who thinks he is an elf and Ed Asner as Santa Claus, would you feel an urgent desire to see this film? Neither did I. I thought it would be clunky, stupid and obvious, like "The Santa Clause 2" or "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." It would have grotesque special effects and lumber about in the wreckage of holiday cheer, foisting upon us a chaste romance involving the only girl in America who doesn't know that a man who thinks he is an elf is by definition a pervert.

That's what I thought it would be. It took me about 10 seconds of seeing Will Ferrell in the elf costume to realize how very wrong I was. This is one of those rare Christmas comedies that has a heart, a brain and a wicked sense of humor, and it charms the socks right off the mantelpiece.

He ends the review with, “... Let's hope Buddy persuades enough people to believe. It should be easy. He convinced me that this was a good movie, and that's a miracle on 34th street right there.”

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The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In the late 1970s, Leonard Cohen sat down to write a song about god, sex, love, and other mysteries of human existence that bring us to our knees for one reason or another. The legendary singer-songwriter, who was in his early forties at the time, knew how to write a hit: He had penned "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Lover, Lover, Lover," and dozens of other songs for both himself and other popular artists of the time. But from the very beginning, there was something different about what would become "Hallelujah"—a song that took five years and an estimated 80 drafts for Cohen to complete.

In the 35 years since it was originally released, "Hallelujah" has been covered by more than 300 other artists in virtually every genre. Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix, and Alexandra Burke—the 2008 winner of the UK version of The X Factor—are just a few of the individuals who have attempted to put their own stamp on the song. After Burke’s soulful version was downloaded 105,000 times in its first day, setting a new European record, “Hallelujah” soon became a staple of TV singing shows.

It's an impressive feat by any standard, but even more so when you consider that "Hallelujah"—one of the most critically acclaimed and frequently covered songs of the modern era—was originally stuck on side two of 1984’s Various Positions, an album that Cohen’s American record label deemed unfit for release.

“Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen recalled CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff telling him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

 

Yetnikoff wasn’t totally off-base. With its synth-heavy ’80s production, Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” doesn’t announce itself as the chill-inducing secular hymn it’s now understood to be. (Various Positions was finally released in America on the indie label Passport in 1985.) Part of why it took Cohen five years to write the song was that he couldn’t decide how much of the Old Testament stuff to include.

“It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end,” Cohen said. “Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’”

The first two verses introduce King David—the skilled harp player and great uniter of Israel—and the Nazarite strongman Samson. In the scriptures, both David and Samson are adulterous poets whose ill-advised romances (with Bathsheba and Delilah, respectively) lead to some big problems.

In the third verse of his 1984 studio version, Cohen grapples with the question of spirituality. When he’s accused of taking the Lord’s name in vain, Cohen responds, hilariously, “What’s it to ya?” He insists there’s “a blaze of light in every word”—every perception of the divine, perhaps—and declares there to be no difference between “the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Both have value.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” Cohen once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

 

Amazingly, Cohen's original "Hallelujah" pales in comparison to Velvet Underground founder John Cale’s five-verse rendition for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song live, and when he asked the Canadian singer-songwriter to fax over the lyrics, he received 15 pages. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said.

Cale’s pared down piano-and-vocals arrangement inspired Jeff Buckley to record what is arguably the definitive “Hallelujah,” a haunting, seductive performance found on the late singer-songwriter’s one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace. Buckley’s death in 1997 only heightened the power of his recording, and within a few years, “Hallelujah” was everywhere. Cale’s version turned up in the 2001 animated film Shrek, and the soundtrack features an equally gorgeous version by Rufus Wainwright.

In 2009, after the song appeared in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Cohen agreed with a critic who called for a moratorium on covers. “I think it’s a good song,” Cohen told The Guardian. “But too many people sing it.”

Except “Hallelujah” is a song that urges everyone to sing. That’s kind of the point. The title is from a compound Hebrew word comprising hallelu, to praise joyously, and yah, the name of god. As writer Alan Light explains in his 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah,” the word hallelujah was originally an imperative—a command to praise the Lord. In the Christian tradition, it’s less an imperative than an expression of joy: “Hallelujah!” Cohen seemingly plays on both meanings.

 

Cohen’s 1984 recording ends with a verse that begins, “I did my best / It wasn’t much.” It’s the humble shrug of a mortal man and the sly admission of an ambitious songwriter trying to capture the essence of humanity in a pop song. By the final lines, Cohen concedes “it all went wrong,” but promises to have nothing but gratitude and joy for everything he has experienced.

Putting aside all the biblical allusions and poetic language, “Hallelujah” is a pretty simple song about loving life despite—or because of—its harshness and disappointments. That message is even clearer in Cale’s five-verse rendition, the guidepost for all subsequent covers, which features the line, “Love is not a victory march.” Cale also adds in Cohen’s verse about sex, and how every breath can be a Hallelujah. Buckley, in particular, realized the carnal aspect of the song, calling his version “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”

“Hallelujah” can be applied to virtually any situation. It’s great for weddings, funerals, TV talent shows, and cartoons about ogres. Although Cohen’s lyrics don’t exactly profess religious devotion, “Hallelujah” has become a popular Christmas song that’s sometimes rewritten with more pious lyrics. Agnostics and atheists can also find plenty to love about “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered more than 300 times because it’s a song for everyone.

When Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, renewed interest in “Hallelujah” vaulted Cohen's version of the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Despite its decades of pop culture ubiquity, it took more than 30 years and Cohen's passing for “Hallelujah”—the very essence of which is about finding beauty amid immense sadness and resolving to move forward—to officially become a hit song.

“There’s no solution to this mess,” Cohen once said, describing the human comedy at the heart of “Hallelujah. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a f***ing thing at all—Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

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