The significance of Holly McClane's watch
Here are two perennial December questions: is Die Hard a Christmas film? And what the hell are we going to get Dad for Christmas?
Dad never seems to want anything, and he rarely seems very pleased with what he gets. It - and, indeed, he - is such a hoary old problem that it can even serve as a plot for a Christmas film, specifically the 1949 romance A Holiday Affair. Single-mother Connie (Janet Leigh), whose husband was killed in the war, is considering sensible lawyer Carl Davis for the position of husband and father to her little boy. But then there’s a meet-cute around a toy train with Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum), a high, wide and handsome department store clerk and would-be boat designer (an aspiration that’s creative and off-beat without being too effete for 1949). When Connie, at a loss for a present, gives Steve a violent tie meant for Carl, we know who’s going to end up Dad to little Timmy.
In Holiday Affair, just as in 1947’s A Miracle on 34th Street, new men are auditioning, through the medium of Christmas, to become fathers to families bereaved by war. Steve Mason manages to arrange for toy train fanatic Timmy to ride an actual locomotive out to a new life in California; in Miracle, John Payne’s Fred Gailey (this time the lawyer comes out on top) goes one better by delivering to little Natalie Wood’s Susan Walker not only the dream family home she craves, but the genuine, proved-in-a-court-of-law Santa Claus.
The at-war and post-war 1940s were the golden age of Christmas movies, from the songs of Holiday Inn (1942) and Meet Me in St Louis (1944) to the romances of The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945). And, of course, there is the seasonal institution It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) (we’ll be banging on about that next week.) These films have something in common beyond Christmas, conifers and crooning: Dads. They are all about Dads.
Meet Me In St Louis lays out the problem perfectly, partly because it is set in 1904, when married roles were that much more neatly delineated. Its plot is driven almost entirely by the tension between the father’s dominance and his absence; the whole household must dance to his tune, but he has almost no engagement with its members. He knows nothing of their lives, loves or dreams. The climax of the film shows his reintegration as he puts his family’s happiness over his career advancement, and decides not to move them to New York. Of course, the film says, family happiness will make him whole in a way corporate advancement never will. Besides, he wouldn’t get to go to the St Louis World’s Fair if he was in Manhattan.
In 1945, a lot of American men had just spent a lot of time living in separate spheres to their families. Like Holiday Affair’s Steve Mason, the army had just taken up to four years of their lives; like the cab drivers and cops in Wonderful Life, they had dropped into Holland and waded up onto France. They had faced horrors in Europe and hell in the Pacific and they weren’t likely to forget any of it soon. They were going to need some reintegration into family life themselves; the men in these films certainly seem ready for it.
As shown on the big screen, the American countryside was full of dads exchanging destiny-deciding drama for domesticity, whether it's Bing Crosby singing patriotic songs in his farmhouse in Holiday Inn or the retired General in White Christmas trying to run a B&B. Cast adrift after a U-Boat attack in the mid-Atlantic, Jefferson Jones, the hero of Christmas in Connecticut, spends his time dreaming of the farmhouse comforts conjured up by newspaper columnist Elizabeth Lane. Meanwhile, the titular Bishop (David Niven) of The Bishop’s Wife has to be reconciled to his domestic life by an angel in the form of Cary Grant (what better heavenly form could an angel take?).
It’s A Wonderful Life reifies the ramshackle, disordered domestic. We know that there is something wrong with George Bailey when he acts like a stereotypical father: withdrawn, preoccupied with work, shouting at the kids. We know he is redeemed when he learns to love the errant newel knob that comes off in his hands. It is the shabby quotidian that makes him whole. It is the family that gives him a role. He finds his identity in Dad.
Women, meanwhile, had to be acclimated to their new, old roles. They might have spent the war making tanks, but now they have to get used to making flapjacks, like columnist Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) in Christmas in Connecticut. Her column is a lie: she isn’t a farmer’s wife and stupendous cook, she’s a hard-living New York journalist who orders in all her meals and spends her spare cash on furs. She invented her housewife alias, and in doing so sealed her fate: to live in someone else’s fantasy.
They all end up leaving New York, these independent women. Connie Ennis in Holiday Affair is whisked off to California; in Miracle, Kris Kringle takes retail queen Doris Walker out of her single-mom city apartment and into a house in the suburbs. Like Wonderful Life’s Pottersville, with its fast music and faster women, New York is no place to raise a child.
The children who lisp in the background of these movies will grow up to be Baby Boomers. Timmy Ennis is probably going to end up racing hotrods in the close California night, like something out of American Graffiti; Susan Walker will likely end up a campus radical; Zuzu, her petals long forgotten, now drinks away her Christmas on box wine, ranting on Facebook about stolen elections and vaccines. Or maybe she married a cop and got a job with a Japanese company. And now her estranged husband is going to have to come all the way to LA for the holidays.
Because Die Hard is definitely a Christmas movie. It’s about a man realising that, despite his life of incident and violence, his true identity is being a husband and father. Christmas is not about shooting Germans and smoking European cigarettes; it is about family. Die Hard climaxes with a woman giving up the symbol of her independent employment - a man’s watch - in order to defeat the suave, metropolitan bad guy and reunite with the true meaning of Christmas: suburban Dad.
Let’s get him a machine gun. Ho ho ho.
The Metropolitan’s sister publication, Christmas Stories, is halfway through this year’s story: ‘The Elf Service’. Hard bitten reporters, starry eyed idealists, scrappy Newsies and the only Dad involved is not really a Dad at all. Subscribe below or wherever you find your podcasts.