As post-Thanksgiving shopping sprees turn into melees and retailers count down the "buying days" until Christmas, Peter E. Dans, author of "Christians in the Movies," is happy to provide some holiday-viewing suggestions that are simultaneously entertaining and spiritual.
Dans, an associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University, previously wrote "Doctors in the Movies: Boil the Water and Just Say Aah!" He writes and talks about films from a devout perspective that is good-humored and individualistic.
Not for Dans is the banality of "Miracle on 34th Street," which he decries "as a supposedly anti-commercial film that is actually one big promo for Macy's."
Instead, he recommends the engrossing 1935 version of "A Tale of Two Cities," in which the brilliant, alcoholic lawyer, Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman), opens himself to redemption when he attends a midnight Christmas service with the beautiful and virtuous Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan). Dans argues that the filmmakers' targeted use of two Christmas carols, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Adeste Fideles," bring a resonant religious character to the sound track. And of course, few stories lend themselves better to Christian teaching than Dickens' novel, which climaxes with Carton's ultimate act of self-sacrifice on the guillotine.
Dans confesses that one pleasure he had writing the book was "digging into the movies' back stories." He notes that Felix Mendelssohn did not compose the tune to "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" until 1840, and that Frederick Oakeley did not translate "Adeste Fideles" into English until 1841 - putting both works roughly half a century after the French Revolution, the pivotal event in the movie.
But, he says, "What's 50 years among friends?"
Any movie guide that directs contemporary viewers back to now-underappreciated stars like Colman serves a purpose that really is both aesthetic and personal. Younger moviegoers who watch Colman's Sydney Carton for the first time, or older ones who see this superb performance again after a decade-long span (as I just did), will find his gallantry and cynicism equally vivid and startling - and as modern as the noble volatility of Robert Downey, Jr. in "Iron Man." (Downey could be a great Sydney Carton himself).
Dans has several picks for movies that relate directly to the Nativity - most obviously, "The Nativity Story" (2006), directed by Catherine Hardwicke ("Thirteen," "Twilight"). "It is essentially about the birth of Christ," says Dans. "Most Jesus films start there and jump to Crucifixion; Nativity is just an afterthought. For those who are devout and want something to fit the season, this does." In the book, he especially praises the film for its sympathetic depiction of the typically overlooked Joseph, who "ruminates about whether he, as a father, will be able to teach Jesus anything."
He makes a more personal choice with John Ford's "3 Godfathers" (1949), a Western allegory about three cattle rustlers (including John Wayne) who parallel the Three Wise Men as they follow a star across the Arizona desert to take the infant son of an abandoned woman to a town called New Jerusalem.
Dans recognizes that it's "over the top." But he still finds it "an interesting movie" - partly for the Irish-Catholic director's grizzled yet reverent perspective on Christianity. And it continues to hold some of the power that it did for him when he saw it at age 11.
Dans spent his youth in a cold-water flat, a tenement apartment and a housing project on New York's Lower East Side, until his stepfather paid for him to go to La Salle Military Academy in Oakdale, Long Island, New York. He always treasured movies for the picture-window view they gave him of a broader world.
Not surprisingly, in conversation and in writing, he describes films from the World War II and immediate postwar eras with particular fondness. He resurrects discussion of a forgotten 1949 religious hit, "Come to the Stable." It stars Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as French nuns "who go to America - to Bethlehem, Connecticut - to build a hospital for kids," honoring a vow they made to St. Jude that if Patton's army spared their children's hospital back in France, they would found another one in the United States.
In the book, Dans delves into the movie's real-life origins with gusto, noting that the hospital's original catalyst, Mother Benedict Duss, was American-born, and that the abbey she founded in Connecticut encouraged nuns to "develop as persons and not renounce their past." Mother Dolores, the abbey's prioress, is Dolores Hart, the star of "King Creole," "Where the Boys Are," and "Francis of Assisi" - "the only nun who is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences."
The genuinely festive musical "Holiday Inn" (1942), about Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby starting a country inn geared solely to holidays, makes Dans recall not just the movie's introduction of Irving Berlin's Oscar-winning song "White Christmas," or American solidarity during the war years, but also his treasured moments as a kid on the Lower East Side.
But Dans comes back to his take on the film as entertainment. "Astaire and Crosby - you can't beat that combination!" Follow Dans' suggestions on films like "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Holiday Inn" and you will find yourself on a nostalgia trip worth taking.