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White vs. Red Christmas

Christmas is everywhere. But depending on which side of the Iron Curtain you grew up on, you'd be watching very different movies.

January 4, 2018  |  by Karen Avetisyan

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We've seen them, and yet it's clear that "Christmas movies" are defined less by their holiday content than by the fact that they're being screened this time of year. After all, in every other Christmas movie, the holiday itself is either absent altogether or serves as a secondary leitmotif – simply providing a white background.

If you're from the west of the Iron Curtain, you've surely wondered why Harry Potter and Die Hard are are so punctually appearing on your TVs. If you're from the east, you've done the same about Ivan Vasilievich Changes Professions and Office Romance. Do these films have anything to do with Christmas?


Still, there are many others that take on the holy day directly, smothering us with fairytale and festivity – in both form and content – and delivering on the phrase: "Christmas is everywhere." It may be that this holiday is everywhere, but it's everywhere in different ways. Besides the terminology used, there are also key conceptual differences: New Year on the one hand and Christmas on the other.

American Christmas traditions often have biblical links, since the holiday is not only an end-of-year phenomenon, but also a religious one. And so, in 1947, Oscar-winning director George Seaton filmed Miracle on 34th Street, based on the story by Valentine Davies.

Strolling through Manhattan one day, Kris Kringle is persuaded to wear a Santa suit and fill in for the drunkard who was supposed to play that role. His performance wins the hearts of children and lands him a job in a toy store. At work, the honorable Kris refuses the request of management (to sell customers used and worn-out toys). As a result, the store-owner decides to fire Kris for his insubordination, but changes his mind upon learning that the store has had a bigger influx of customers thanks to Kris. It turns out Kris considers himself to be the real "Santa", which lands him in heap of trouble – and in psychological evaluation. Only the court can decide whether he's the real Santa or not.


But let's descend into the story's deeper and more metaphorical level. It's worth noting that Kris has turned up just before the holidays to condemn selfishness and inspire faith in miracles – and is put on trial as a result to prove his identity. Yes, the Kris-Christ subtext is quite clear.


Miracle on 34th Street, therefore, belongs to the Christmas – and not the New Year – tradition of filmmaking. The same thing can be said for It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and The Bishop's Wife (1947).

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American Christmas movies – The Bishop's WifeMiracle on 34th Street, and It's a Wonderful Life

Although Christmas was accepted by Russian culture as early as the Baptism of Rus (988 AD), it was never given as much importance as Easter. Even at the beginning of the 18th century, when Peter the Great put into action the Gregorian calendar, he brought about the "New Year," which became the more observed public holiday. Needless to say, the Russian world was quick to accept the elements and traditions of Christmas – most notably the Christmas tree.


The trajectory of traditions and lifestyles coming from the West and adopted by the Soviet Union also crossed over into culture – particularly in the world of film.


In 1935, after a seven-year ban, Stalin not only brought back the Christmas tree for soviet children but also, excited by positive and jovial examples of western cinema, informed artists to fill the somber, socialist, soviet screens with joy and happiness. The command was immediately realized; Jolly Fellows (1934) appeared on screens as soviet cinema's first iconic musical comedy. It presented jazz and lavish lifestyle – and the empire's first favorite celebrity couple, Leonid Utesov and Lyubov Orlova.

Even though Jolly Fellows didn't have anything to do with Christmas, it served as the roots from which a new tradition of festive and spirited films grew. These films grew more authentic over time. Meanwhile in Hollywood, in 1940, the already renowned German master Ernst Lubitsch was filming The Shop Around the Corner with James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. The remake more than a half century later featured Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail.

Two years later Mark Sandrich's Holiday Inn (1942), a musical by Irving Berlin, was released. It was an instant classic, thanks to the legendary duo Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. But it was also the crystallization of the holiday-musical genre, which became the prototype for Little Blue Light (1962), which aired during the holidays in the Soviet Union as it does in today's Russian Federation.

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Holliday Inn and Little Blue Light

After World War II, Christmas movies became more sentimental and substantial, as post-war audiences craved miracles, consolation, and celebration. And directors did not hesitate decorating their films with plenty of references to war, bitter existentialism, melancholy sentiments, and of course the long awaited Christmas miracle.


And so, a year after the end of the war, master of burlesque and three-time Oscar winner Frank Capra created perhaps what is Hollywood's most iconic holiday movie of all time, It's a Wonderful Life (1946). A film where we have everything: social discontent, American realism, and, at the same time, magic: divine intervention and the victory of fundamental values. Not unlike another Oscar-winning classic, Michael Curtis's White Christmas (1954), which became the last in the line of post-war musical Christmas comedies.


The American prototype for elaborate Christmas films crossed over the Atlantic to blows up on soviet screens with Carnival Night (1956). Three years after Stalin's death, the director Eldar Ryanazov was able to mix joyful frivolity with politics, throwing a sharply critical and satirical glance at soviet bureaucratic nomenclature and the establishment's closed mindset. After the first viewing, the elegant Lyudmila Gurchenko became a shining star in the soviet skyline, while Ryanazov was all the hype. The director was destined to become the trailblazer of soviet holiday cinema. The creation of his Christmas masterpiece hit was still ahead.

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Vera-Ellen & Rosemary Clooney (White Christmas) and Lyudmila Gurchenko (Carnival Night)

The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath (1975) was more than just an artistic film. It was an endeavor to anthologize soviet behaviors, lifestyles, and colors. The film is accompanied by the guitar's poetic title songs, a Russian bath, Russian vodka, Russian kholodets (an oddly popular meat gelatin), and a vast selection of timeless references. With these traditions the film itself became a tradition, screening for decades and often on all soviet and then Russian television channels. Ryazanov's subtexts in the movie become more delicate and deep over time and the cinematographic reflection of reality, although disguised, became no less bold.

Take, for instance, this reflection on the soviet habit of encouraging men to live equal, even identical, lives. Drunk and disoriented, Zhenya is shipped off to Leningrad (St. Petersburg) instead of Moscow. Unable to notice the difference, he arrives at his destination: an identical door, an identical apartment number.


When we examine Ryazanov's Office Romance (1977) or Leonid Gaidai's Ivan Vasilievich Changes Professions, or Aleksandr Serlyjs Gentlemen of Fortune, we understand that these films became holiday hits not because of the presence or lack of Christmas motifs, but because of two components highly valued by holiday audiences. The first is transformation: from preschool director to a crime boss (Gentlemen of Fortune), for example, or from superintendent to Tsar (Ivan Vasilievich Changes Professions). The second is escapism. Even if it's simply from one apartment to another, then at least in a different city with a strange woman (The Irony of Fate).

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Holiday season Soviet films – Enjoy Your BathOffice RomanceIvan Vasilievich Changes Professions, and Gentlemen of Fortune

The parallels and contrast between American and soviet "holiday" movies are most apparent in the film settings and the heroes' appearances.


Soviet costumes were generally gloomy, with darker pastel tones. The heroes didn't usually have special hair and makeup. The women were covered up and composed (L. Gurchenko, I. Skobtseva, A. Freindlich), while the men put on thick-lensed optical glasses and a soviet engineer's sweater (A. Myagkov, A. Demyanenko). Meanwhile, American characters were more stylish and outstanding. Men showed off their festive suits and gelled hair (F. Astaire, B. Crosby, J. Stewart), while the women danced in short or see-through dresses, generous décolletés, festive lipstick, and with an unabashedly sexual attitude reminiscent of cabaret and burlesque (V. Ellen, V. Dale, R. Clooney).

From the perspective of form, Hollywood's is more free-flowing, colorful and uninhibited. While the form in soviet films may be borrowed, their content and meaning are unique and self-sufficient, as seen through the struggle created through their complexity and multilayered storylines, which are at the same time delicate and warm.


In the end, disregarding continent, religion, politics, and even the iron curtain – whether it's called Christmas or the New Year – the holiday movies drive us endlessly to a place of transformation and escape – where an old man can turn into Santa Claus, the hawthorn into a Christmas tree, and a tick of the clock into a blink of a dreamful eye.


During the holiday season, the films themselves transform – from a single experience to a tradition that continues and repeats in time.


Karen Avetisyan studied linguistics and intercultural communications at the Russian-Armenian (Slavonic) University, Yerevan. Film critic, radio host, columnist and cultural reviewer at Sputnik Armenia international news agency and radio, author of articles, art and culture programs, film reviews. Member of Armenian Association of Film Critics and Cinema Journalist.

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