The Holly and the Ivy (1952, George More O’Ferrall)

A typical holiday family-crisis movie (see also: A Christmas Tale). Bulb-nosed Ralph Richardson (lead butler in The Fallen Idol) is a parson who doesn’t realize his whole family has come to resent him. They trade family secrets amongst themselves, then finally tell off the old man, causing him to proclaim that he’s wasted his life. Merry Christmas!

Ralph and Denholm:

Daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson, star of Brief Encounter) lives at home wishing she was free to marry her (apparently Christmas-hating) boyfriend David and move to South America. Daughter Margaret (Margaret Leighton of The Elusive Pimpernel and Under Capricorn) is a bitter drunk because her secret out-of-wedlock baby died earlier that year. She has towed along some relative named Richard (Hugh Williams of One of Our Aircraft is Missing) – never figured out what his deal was. Michael (a very young Denholm Elliott) is on leave from the military, meddling in his siblings’ affairs, and two aunts are around for comic relief and a teeny bit of wisdom: jolly Lydia and forbidding Bridget.

Celia and Margaret:

A Christmas Carol (1971, Richard Williams)

It’s just not Christmas until we watch some version of the Dickens story. This half-hour oscar-winner from renowned animator Williams (we just saw his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit) is pretty excellent, with complex and impressive character animation. He recast Marley and Ebenezer from the movie Scrooge, which we watched two years ago, and added narrator Michael Redgrave. Marley is horrifying here, his jaw hanging open while he speaks, his coat-tails like tentacles behind him, and Christmas Past is a white flickering flame.

We also love Scrooge’s blue socks and yellow slippers:

Santa Claus Is Coming Tonight (1974, Pierre Hebert)

Opens with live-action footage of Santa descending by helicopter, the bulk of the movie is animated. A lonely old man full of Christmas spirit decorates his house for Santa’s arrival, while elsewhere an identical man working as a department-store Santa gets fired for stealing. Santa comes to the old man’s house and they party all night, then when Santa wakes up the old man is (I think) dead. Strange.

I’ve always wondered about this one. In my mind it represented all the non-musical Potter plays, the other half of his career, and so I had to coax myself into finally watching it for fear it’d damage my image of the great man. Liked it for sure, but don’t think I would’ve been hooked if this was the first one of his plays/adaptations I’d seen. Well-written, subversive, but dark as all hell… I am surprised this guy was allowed to work in television.

Over two decades before The Blair Witch Project:

Michael Kitchen (Out of Africa, recurring role in recent James Bond flicks) is Martin, an evil young man who bumps into strangers on the street and tries to convince them that they know each other. Denholm Elliott (A Room with a View, Bad Timing, best known as a good guy in the Indiana Jones movies) almost falls for it then ditches him, but Martin stole Elliott’s wallet, takes it home and easily talks his way into the house with the wife Patricia Lawrence (in Potter’s Son of Man a few years earlier). Martin sees that their daughter Pattie is lying brain-damaged at home and fakes that he was an ex of hers who was turned down for marriage, offers to help care for her, acts ever so polite. Elliott is suspicious but doesn’t move fast enough, and Martin integrates himself. The wife might be gullible, but she’s also so weary from taking care of Pattie constantly and jumps at the chance to leave her in compassionate hands for a few hours each day. One night when Martin is about to rape Pattie for at least the second time, she wakes up screaming, aware of herself at last, and Martin flees, immediately starts looking for a new family.

Move mouse over image to see Michael Kitchen get over-excited:

Barry Davis (who also directed Potter’s Schmoedipus the same year) keeps things lively on a miniscule budget. The not-at-all-naturalistic lighting effects (see first screenshot) are especially nice. From the initial street scene on, it stays remarkably intense, bizarre and horrifying. Martin has supernatural powers and hairy demon feet. He talks politics with the family, encourages their own worst impulses. Potter writes: “Deport them, that’s what I say. England for the English” into the mouth of the devil. Then of course there’s the home invasion aspect, the rape of a mentally damaged girl and the miracle ending. This was banned for eleven years (“brilliantly written and made, but nauseating”) – that’s why IMDB lists it as a 1987 release. The theatrical remake starring Sting was actually the first version released in the UK.

Denholm Elliott:

My favorite line… having some brandy – “There’s fluoride in the water, so are you able to drink it neat, dear?”