It’s almost December, it’s snowing, and I’m in the mood for a holiday film or two. The reviews for Bad Santa 2 are not encouraging (“Bad Santa 2” is vulgar, nasty and offensive, but it has flawed aspects also) so it’s time to look at the classics. My list of holiday classics includes the delightful Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Carol (1951, must be watched in black and white).
My list does not include It’s a Wonderful Life – it’s no more a Christmas movie than Die Hard, and there are many reasons to dislike it. It was panned when it opened, by both the New Yorker and the New York Times, though arguably neither publication appreciates small town life. Here’s a slightly more recent critical review, which focuses on the problematic Pottersville sequence.
Another personal holiday classic is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It’s sweeter and more sentimental (relatively) than the original Vacation film, as benefits a family holiday film. While Vacation is a mock heroic quest, Christmas Vacation is structured like a classical Greek old comedy, complete with all the rivals on stage for the big final number. Since the big final number is singing the American anthem, that probably would have been cut by Canadian censors in the 1920s and 1930, as they were sensitive to gratuitous displays of American patriotism. And what did the censors, now classifiers, think of this film in 1989? Can it be called a family holiday film?
Classification agencies usually have web sites that provide details about films’ ratings, but of course these sites did not exist in 1989, and while most agencies have put their old records online, they either did not capture additional details, or have not put those online. With the ability to post information about film ratings online, most agencies now provide a lot more information about the film, and how the rating was determined. However, the actual ratings for older films are available, and for most of Canada, Christmas Vacation is PG. Quebec, as usual, is more liberal, giving a G rating, although there is no PG in Quebec. The Maritimes have the stricter 14A. The Americans are somewhere in the middle, at PG-13. That’s stricter than PG, but without the legal restriction of the 14A. The few international ratings I found are similar, and the one noted concern is language. It’s worth noting that the ratings for Christmas Vacation are generally lower than the ratings for Vacation.
Most agencies do not state if ratings change, so it’s possible these are not the original ratings. Also, some agencies re-rate films when they come out on video, and some do not.
The British ratings are interesting case. In 1990, they gave the home video a PG rating. In 1998, a 2 second cut was required to keep that rating. This is the opposite of traditional ratings creep, a well documented tendency for the same classification to gradually allow more challenging material. A 2013 version, with additional material and commentary, is rated 12, meaning no one under 12 may rent or purchase. (BBFC does not use adult accompaniment ratings for home video, but if this was a theatrical release, the rating would be 12A, meaning adult accompaniment required for children under 12). Other agencies also request or suggest cuts to obtain a specific rating, but the information is rarely publicized. The distributor may also cut a film before rating, in which case the agency may not be aware of the cut.
Due to the lack of information available from official agencies, I checked a few other ratings sources. The experts who contribute to Common Sense Media and the surfers who contribute to OK.COM both agree this film is suitable for 13 and up. Finally, I checked the Catholic News Service. The influence of the Catholic church on the original MPAA production code is well known. Less well known is that since the early 1930s, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and later the Catholic News Service, have been providing their own classifications, rating films for “artistic merit and moral suitability.” On the artist merit side, “Director Jeremiah S. Chechik keeps the gags moving quickly past the double entendres and gets some laughs from Clark’s bumbling attempts to enjoy Christmas.” On the moral suitability side, this film is suitable for Adults, on the following scale:
A-I: general patronage;
A-II: adults and adolescents;
L: limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.
O: morally offensive.
Gather round, for some more or less inoffensive family fun.