The Man Who Saved Christmas

Director: Sturla Gunnarsson
Jason Alexander, Kelly Rowan, Ed Asner

During the two World Wars in the last century, most of the fight certainly was done on the battlefields. But a lot of the fight was also done on home turf, such as with rationing. One example of this kind of rationing was in World War II when the American government enacted laws so that gasoline was rationed. If you were a typical American and not some government or rich big shot, or even if you were not semi-important like a doctor, more likely than not you would only be allowed four gallons of gasoline a week. And for a time in the year 1943, all pleasure driving was forbidden. The strange thing was that with this rationing, the government was not trying to save gasoline. Rather, they were trying to combat the problem that because the Japanese had closed off the supply of rubber from East Asia, tires were in short supply. Indeed, the short supply of rubber also dictated that families during the war could only own a maximum of five tires. The interesting thing that came with all this auto-related rationing were attempts to find substitutes for rubber tires, one of them being wooden tires. (From what I read, wood tires were soon discontinued because they would chip or break when they went over potholes and other road flaws.) Another interesting thing that came out of rationing in World War II was with food. Most food was rationed, but there were apparently some kinds of food that had little to no rationing. For example, one food that you could apparently buy all that you wanted was spinach. Gee, I wonder why? (Actually, I've always liked spinach, and I've always been confused by the extreme hate for this vegetable.)

Even if you are not an expert on the two World Wars, more likely than not you already knew that essential goods like food and gasoline were controlled by the government in not only America, but in other countries. What you may not know is that governments on the home front also controlled the leisure lives of its citizens during the war. Certainly, one such way was with encouraging film industries to come up with patriotic movies. But there were other ways, directly and indirectly, governments interfered with entertainment during the wars. I once read an interesting story about this that took place in Canada during the Second World War. As you may know, Canada entered the Second World War a couple of years before the United States. In 1940, the Canadian government passed The War Exchange Conservation Act. To help keep money in Canada, money that could be used to help fight the war, the Act banned many goods from the United States that were considered to be non-essential. One of those goods were comic books. With no more American comic books in stores and a large group of Canadian readers still hungry for them, it resulted in several Canadian outfits formed to make Canadian comic books. These comics included Nelvana of the Northern Lights (a female superhero who came out before Wonder Woman) and Iron Man, a superhero who fought against the Nazis, and not to be confused with the later Marvel superhero. Although usually printed in (cheap) black and white, these comics turned out to be pretty popular with Canadians, though the fact that there was no other choice probably also explains their popularity.

After the war ended, the Canadian government changed the rules so that Canadian publishers could get the rights to reprint American comics in Canada. Seeing that getting the rights to American comics was much cheaper than creating their own, Canadian comic publishers abandoned making The Man Who Saved ChristmasCanadian comics overnight. Several years later, the Canadian government allowed American comic companies to distribute their comics directly to Canada... which promptly killed off those Canadian comic book publishers. Sometimes there is some justice in the world. Anyway, that long story probably let you know that there are some interesting true stories from the World Wars concerning governments getting their claws into what the public uses as entertainment. Recently I came across one such true story from a movie I stumbled upon by accident, The Man Who Saved Christmas. It was a true story I hadn't heard of before, and it intrigued me when I read its synopsis while doing research on it on the Internet. The movie is based on a true incident involving Alfred Carlton Gilbert (Alexander, Seinfeld). Gilbert was the man who was behind the making of various famous toys such as the Erector Set. The majority of the events of the movie take place during the latter part of World War One, when America had joined the fight. Gilbert gets a request from the American government to revamp his toy making factory to make various items for the war effort, and support the government's plan to publicly cancel Christmas so that Americans can concentrate on the war effort. Being patriotic, Gilbert at first agrees. But he eventually realizes that with the halt of his factory making toys and the cancellation of Christmas, a number of kids will be very unhappy during the Christmas holiday season. What follows is his struggle to convince the American government to not cancel Christmas and allow him to keep making toys, while at the same time struggling with his relationships with his father Charles (Asner, O'Hara's Wife) and his young son, Al Junior.

With The Man Who Saved Christmas being a true Christmas story about a famous American, and sporting famous American actors like Jason Alexander and Ed Asner in its cast, it's very likely you have made the conclusion that the movie had some heavy Canadian involvement. And you would be right. The movie's producers were mostly Canadian, though with the actors, Canadians were once again just given the supporting roles. The movie's director, Sturla Gunnarsson (Ice Soldiers) was Canadian, though he was working with a screenplay by American writers. Despite having some key American involvement, the movie managed to qualify as being Canadian under Canadian content laws. And with that knowledge in mind when I sat down to watch the movie, I couldn't help but wonder if the movie would be, like with so many Canadian movies, dreary with both its production values and with its story. Well, when it comes to the movie's production values, the production manages to buck the odds. For once, some serious money was spent on this Canadian movie, and it results in the movie having a virtually impeccable look. While I'm no expert on period detail, what is displayed in this movie, from the costumes to the sets, sure managed to satisfy me. The ample budget for the movie also helped in other details, from filling rooms with dozens of people to lighting and photographing every scene so that the colors and various details almost seem to pop off of the screen. (I saw the movie on DVD, and I can only imagine what the movie would look in its available Blu-ray edition.) Curiously, the only part of the movie that cheapens out is with something that you think would be easy and inexpensive to do. In a couple of scenes, we see shots of newspaper headlines, and it looks like the headlines were constructed in a few minutes by a high school student using Photoshop.

But those newspapers only take up a few seconds of the movie, so that's a minor quibble; the movie's look as a whole doesn't have that typical Canadian dreariness. However, when it comes to the movie's story, that's a different thing. It seems a requirement for practically all Christmas movies with Canadian involvement to have extremely downbeat themes, like One Magic Christmas and Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus had, and The Man Who Saved Christmas is no exception. In the opening of the movie, Gilbert's Erector sets are rejected by a toy store, and Gilbert can't get his father Charles to give him a loan. Gilbert soon turns things around, but then the movie skips a few years of his success to have the bad things come around again. Shortly after being asked by the government to convert his toy factory to make war supplies, Gilbert's brother Frank (Ari Cohen, Maps To The Stars) is drafted. Gilbert's factory workers are demoralized by the change to making war supplies, as well as Gilbert and his family. Not long afterwards, Frank is declared missing in action, followed by Gilbert getting word the government wants his help to cancel Christmas altogether. This is followed by a co-worker's son being killed in the war, Gilbert's son being bullied by other kids angry that Gilbert will be helping to cancel Christmas, and... well, that's just some of the bad stuff that happens in this movie. But I will give the movie this: While it may be filled with depressing material, the movie never gets completely bleak. Director Gunnarsson somehow manages to direct the movie in a way that even with the darker moments, the audience all the same gets the feeling that there are still options open to the characters. In fact, there seems to be an underlying message in this movie, that we are all the masters of ourselves, and if something bad should happen in our life journey, we should do something about it instead of collapsing into a heap of despair.

I think this message is a pretty good one, and it's also enough sugar on the bitter pill of dreariness the movie sometimes has us swallow. But that's not the only sweetness found in The Man Who Saved Christmas. Besides the nice production values, the movie also has some good comic relief. Wisely, since the movie deals with some serious themes, the humor is not loud and brash, but is effectively low key and subtle. This humor not only prevents the movie from getting too depressing, it also assures the audience that everything will work out for the best in the end. Another key way the movie keeps us in the audience to stick though the sadder parts is with its characters and the actors who play them. When it comes to the key role of A. C. Gilbert, the movie doesn't make any missteps. Gilbert is shown to not be blind to realities; he acknowledges problems in his profession (such as with his soon unhappy workers) and his private life (like his not always happy relationship with his son.) A central character with weaknesses - and recognizing them - makes for someone we in the audience can identify with. And Jason Alexander fits the role very well, believably showing the many sides of Gilbert from struggling with various dilemmas to a gentle sense of humor. The supporting players also do well. Ed Asner also shows more than one dimension with his role, showing someone who is practical and logical (like when he initially rejects giving Gilbert a loan), but also shows genuine love and support when he feels it's been earned. As Gilbert's wife Mary, actress Kelly Rowan (The Gate) shows love to Gilbert and their child without ever overplaying it; you sense how devoted she is to her family, and that adds to the humanity of the movie while also helping the movie not to get too dark. In the end, The Man Who Saved Christmas is a pretty good addition to the Christmas movie genre, one that the entire family will probably enjoy. Though it doesn't answer the nagging question as to why Canadian Christmas movies almost always seem to have heavily depressing elements. Perhaps Canadian movie producers are for secret reasons leading a negative campaign against the holiday to try to have it be cancelled?

(Posted November 21, 2018)

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See also: An American Christmas Carol, Blizzard, O'Hara's Wife