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Christmas movies remain integral part of film history

FILE - In this file image originally provided by United Feature Syndicate Inc. VIA ABC TV, Charlie Brown and Linus appear in a scene from "A Charlie Brown Christmas," a television special based on the "Peanuts" comic strip by Charles M. Schulz. Charles Schulz' comic-strip and cartoon characters will star in their own animated film scheduled to hit theaters Nov. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/ABC, 1965 United Feature Syndicate Inc., File) **NO SALES** **MANDATORY CREDIT: United Feature Syndicate Inc. ** ** Usable by LA and DC Only **
FILE - In this file image originally provided by United Feature Syndicate Inc. VIA ABC TV, Charlie Brown and Linus appear in a scene from "A Charlie Brown Christmas," a television special based on the "Peanuts" comic strip by Charles M. Schulz. Charles Schulz' comic-strip and cartoon characters will star in their own animated film scheduled to hit theaters Nov. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/ABC, 1965 United Feature Syndicate Inc., File) **NO SALES** **MANDATORY CREDIT: United Feature Syndicate Inc. ** ** Usable by LA and DC Only ** (CHARLES M. SCHULTZ / AP)

Over the next month, Christmas films will take over the airwaves and theaters as the entertainment industry begins the long road to the holidays. In addition to ABC Family's 25 Days of Christmas marathon and a handful of new holiday films joining the local multiplex, Carroll County will be host to a collection of free screenings of some holiday classics.

Cinema has been tackling the topic of Christmas for just about as long as there have been movies. In 1901, "A Christmas Carol" was adapted for the first of many times into the short film "Scrooge, Or Marley's Ghost." For those who think remakes are out of control now, three more adaptations of the story were made between 1901 and 1913.

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At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 3, Carroll Community College will host a free screening of some of these earliest Christmas films with the Peacherine Ragtime Society providing live accompaniment to the silent classics. The films will be shown in the Scott Center theater.

For those who prefer a more modern take on the holiday, the Carroll Arts Center is hosting a screening of "Home Alone" this Saturday, Nov. 28, prior to the Jingle Run and Miracle on Main Street holiday parade. Carroll County Arts Council Executive Director Sandy Oxx said the film was chosen in celebration of its 25th anniversary as well as its continued popularity among children. When released, "Home Alone" was the highest grossing film of 1990, and one of the top 10 films of all time.

This year also marks a number of anniversaries for some Christmas favorites. "A Charlie Brown Christmas," also screening at the Carroll Arts Center, Dec. 18, as part of the annual Eric Byrd Trio jazz concert, is celebrating its 50th consecutive year of airings, following its debut on Dec. 9, 1965. The special was the animated debut of the "Peanuts" characters — who also made the leap to theater screens this year in "The Peanuts Movie" — and launched more than 40 animated specials.

This year also marks the 75th anniversary of the film "The Shop Around the Corner," the Christmas classic with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan as two shop owners who have fallen in love through correspondence, despite their distaste for each other in person. The film is an adaptation of the Hungarian play Parfumerie, which was later adapted into the '90s film, "You've Got Mail," which replaced the post office with product placement for AOL.

Jonathan Slate, associate professor of communication and cinema at McDaniel College, said "The Shop Around the Corner" is his favorite of the classic Christmas films. He said he appreciates the film's subtleties and its embrace of Christmas as a thematic base rather than simple setting. He said he prefers the film to the more ubiquitous Christmas classic "It's a Wonderful Life."

"It's a subtler and smaller and more intimate film about discovering who are the important people in our lives," Slate said. "Christmas is woven into the tapestry of the story of 'Shop Around the Corner.' It's less mythic and epic."

"It's a Wonderful Life," released in 1946, didn't start life as a holiday classic. When released, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including a nomination for Stewart for Best Actor, but didn't do well at the box office. The film remained a minor favorite for years, until falling out of copyright in 1974. This placed "It's a Wonderful Life" in the public domain, allowing television stations to pick up the film for cheap and air it repeatedly during the holiday season without paying royalties. Due to changes in copyright in the early '90s, the film once again fell under control of production company Republic Pictures, which sold the airing rights to NBC, which will run the film Dec. 5 at 8 p.m.

Sandy Oxx, executive director of the Carroll County Arts Council, said "It's a Wonderful Life" is her favorite Christmas movie, despite the fact she had not seen it until she was an adult.

"I love that movie because it helped me understand my husband, when we had just started dating," Oxx said. "He's a big strong man, but as soon as the opening credits come on, he starts crying, and says it happens every time. That will always be my favorite Christmas movie, because it reminds me of my husband."

The 1983 film "A Christmas Story," followed a similar path, starting a box office flop and growing into a Christmas classic with repeated television screenings. In the mid-90s, Turner Broadcasting stations began airing the film, with the annual 24-hour marathon beginning in 1997 on TNT. The film, based on a collection of short stories and anecdotes by writer Jean Shepherd — who also narrated the film — is designed for television viewing, with each story forming short mini-narratives throughout the entire film.

Slate said the film is one of his absolute favorites at this time of year, and he is happy to watch it in pieces throughout the day on Christmas.

"It's not overly sentimental, but it's still a coming-of-age movie," Slate said. "It's just such a misbegotten group of people struggling to celebrate the holiday, which is imperfect and full of obstacles. I love that movie. It really makes the season."

Oxx said she sees a distinction between Christmas films and films that just happen to be set at the holiday season. She said to truly be a Christmas film, it has to be about the meaning of the season.

"I bristle when people say their favorite Christmas movie is 'Love Actually,'" Oxx said. "When we were trying to pick what we were going to show after the parade, I started Googling Christmas movies and 'Die Hard' kept coming up. I'm not putting on 'Die Hard' for Christmas."

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Richard Brett, associate professor of cinema at McDaniel, disagrees with Oxx's negation of "Die Hard" as a Christmas film. He said "Die Hard" is one of his top five Christmas movies, including "Santa Claus is Comin to Town," "It's a Wonderful Life," "Lethal Weapon" and "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang."

Brett said he appreciates these movies based on the way the Christmas themes are woven into the narratives and enhance stories that don't otherwise require the holiday connection to exist.

"The holiday speaks to different people in different ways," Brett said. "I feel like it brings a warmth and humanity and a dimension to these stories."

Slate said he doesn't appreciate films that feel as if Hollywood is trying to take the holiday and squeeze another movie out of it. His favorites include "Trading Places," and "The Nightmare Before Christmas," which use the holiday for thematic inspiration.

"I'm tired of movies like 'The Santa Clause 7' or 'Jingle All the Way,' that are built out of taking the brand of Christmas and building a narrative around it," Slate said. "I prefer when it connects with the things we think about at Christmas. We think about family, and charity and those less fortunate and the relationships we've formed."

Christmas controversies

Despite the numerous classics built around the season, Christmas films have not been without their share of controversies. The relationship between Christmas and the horror genre is relatively recent, with 1974's "Silent Night, Bloody Night" and "Black Christmas," as the first major entries in what would soon become a Christmas subgenre of its own, the holiday horror film. "Black Christmas" is particularly notable as one of the earliest slasher movies — predating "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" — and as an early work from "A Christmas Story" director Bob Clark.

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The 1984 movie "Silent Night, Deadly Night," no relation to "Silent Night, Bloody Night," is about a man who dresses as Santa Claus in order to murder people on Christmas night. The film was advertised on national TV with ads featuring an axe-wielding Santa walking his way around Christmas gifts. The commercial proved to be so controversial, that a Milwaukee parents group led a protest of the film, causing the ad to be pulled after only a single week.

Siskel and Ebert's review of the film highlighted the controversy, calling the ad "slick, sleazy and mean-spirited." Gene Siskel then read the names of the companies responsible for the campaign followed by a solemn declaration of "Shame on you."

Despite, or perhaps, because of the controversy, "Silent Night, Deadly Night" was successful enough to spawn four sequels in the '80s and '90s and a remake in 2012.

That year spawned another Christmas film controversy with horror-comedy "Gremlins," released in 1984, and featuring an army of mischevious monsters. The film's family-friendly pedigree, produced by Steven Spielberg in the aftermath of "E.T.," PG rating and a trailer that hid the reveal of the titular monsters, convinced a lot of families to bring children who were a bit too young to handle the film's brand of mayhem.

Because of public response to "Gremlins" — which still did huge numbers at the box office — and fellow Spielberg production "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," the PG-13 was introduced by the Motion Pictures Association of America later that year as an option between the PG rating and R.

Keeping Christ in Christmas

Though Christmas is still officially the celebration of the birth of Jesus, very few films deal with this aspect of the holidays — possibly because of the difficulty of writing a film where the most notable character is either in utero or a newborn for most of the narrative.

Unlike Easter, which has a number of films dedicated to telling the story of the holiday, Christian Christmas lovers pretty much just have "The Nativity Story," a 2006 film directed by Twilight's Catherine Hardwicke. The movie tells of the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. The film stars Oscar Isaac, whose career will likely explode after starring in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" this holiday season, and Keisha Castle-Hughes, the youngest actress to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role in "Whale Rider."

In theaters now

This holiday season sees the release of another Christmas horror comedy, "Krampus" based on the Austrian folkloric Christmas character who is chained by Santa and beats children who are naughty. As of yet, there has been no major controversies related to the film, directed by Michael Dougherty, who made the holiday horror film "Trick 'R Treat."

Other Christmas films coming out this season include "The Night Before," a raunchy comedy starring Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon Levitt; "Christmas Eve," which tells six different New York stories on the night before the holiday; and "Love the Coopers," which focuses on a dysfunctional family party.

"The Night Before" and "Love the Coopers" are currently in theaters; "Krampus" and "Christmas Eve" will be released Dec. 4.

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Twitter.com/Jacob_deNobel

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