We have probably all watched a favorite Christmas movie this past month. But how about an un-Christmas movie – like Die Hard, for example, which has little to do with Christmas but is set during the Christmas season? It’s fun to make a list of such films and watch them, too.
My personal favorite is Catch Me If You Can, Steven Spielberg’s 2002 bio-pic/crime-caper about the life of Frank Abagnale, Jr., a young man who before his 19th birthday had successfully impersonated a Pan Am pilot, a Georgia doctor, and a Louisiana prosecuting attorney. Frank was also highly skilled at various forms of check fraud, which is the particular talent that earned him the attention of the FBI.
Catch Me If You Can contains many Christmases. In fact, not only is “Christmas” a primary motif but it also appears to be the central structural element around which the entire film is organized.
The opening scene of Catch Me If You Can occurs on a rainy Christmas Eve, 1969, at a prison in Marseille, France, just as Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the FBI agent who tracked Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), for several years, arrives with extradition papers to take the young American criminal back to the United States. From France 1969 we segue back in time to Christmas 1964, where Frank Abagnale, Sr. (Christopher Walken), is being honored at a banquet with a lifetime membership in the New Rochelle Rotary Club. Immediately following the banquet, we cut to a scene of the happy family at home, where Frank, Jr., dances around the Christmas tree with his mother, Paula, in their family’s living room, while Frank, Sr., puts up additional decorations.
Shortly afterward, Frank, Sr., gets into trouble with the IRS over his business. It’s never completely clear whether his troubles are deserved, but we are given ample opportunity to observe that he is a practiced con artist. After the family loses nearly all of its material possessions, including the car and home, Paula begins an affair with Jack Barnes, one of her husband’s best friends – who, as a successful attorney and president of the Rotary Club, appears to be a more attractive provider of the American dream than Frank, Sr., the GI who was Paula’s ticket out of her small hometown in France at the end of World War II.
When 16-year-old Frank, Jr., is forced to choose which parent to live with following their divorce, he freaks out and runs away. Borrowing con-artist tricks he saw his father perform, he begins a life of deception with two purposes: survival and “getting back” everything the family lost. If he can pull it off, Frank believes, not only will his parents reunite but they will somehow regain the house, the car, the furs, and everything else necessary for their family to be happy once again.
Christmas puts in several more appearances in the film. Frank, Jr., begins to telephone Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent who is chasing him, every year on Christmas Eve. These phone calls serve to highlight both men’s loneliness. Carl is always working alone in the office so that men with families can be at home. And Frank, as Carl sneeringly points out in their earliest conversation, has no one else to call.
When Frank is finally arrested, it happens in France on yet another Christmas Eve – 1967, or three years after the New Rochelle banquet at which his father received that lifetime Rotary Club membership – when Carl Hanratty traces Frank to Montrichard, Paula’s hometown, where he is printing checks on an old monster of a press. As Christmas carols waft from a little church on the town square just outside Frank’s print shop, scores of local police arrive to snatch the newly-arrested Frank out of Carl’s hands and whisk him away to French prison. By now, though, a bond something similar to a father-son relationship has developed between Carl and Frank, and Hanratty promises he’ll obtain the extradition papers to get Frank back to America. Sure enough, we then flash forward two years to the Marseilles prison scene which opened the film (that rainy Christmas Eve 1969) – and Carl Hanratty has arrived to escort Frank back home to face charges.
It’s not merely the multiple Christmases that got me thinking about Catch Me If You Can as a Christmas movie – or, rather, as an un-Christmas movie. What prompted my re-examination was something my younger daughter said about two weeks ago, when we were in the kitchen doing some holiday baking and listening to a local radio station that airs nothing but Christmas carols at this time of year. As soon as Nat King Cole’s rendition of “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . ..”) started to play, my daughter remarked that ever since hearing it in Catch Me If You Can, this version of the song makes her want to cry.
Of course, then I had to watch the movie again – and she’s right.
In Catch Me If You Can, “The Christmas Song” plays near the film’s end, on the day after Christmas 1969. On the way home from France, Frank escapes through the airplane lavatory and onto the runway as the plane taxis toward the terminal upon landing. Now night has fallen, and our teenage fugitive stands in the snow outside a window of his mother’s expensive new home. Peering inside, Frank sees Paula sitting in a chair, reading a magazine. The cozy domesticity of the scene is heightened by the relaxed warmth of Nat King Cole’s voice. His mellow baritone lulls you into visions of hearth and home, while the song’s soft, high-pitched string section simultaneously slices at your heart. Not with the harshness of a Psycho-type violin score, not with the lushness of a Nelson Riddle orchestration, but with the weeping sadness of Tobani’s “Hearts and Flowers” – that melodramatic violin piece associated with tragedy in silent movies.
As Frank watches through the window, Paula turns to smile up at someone, then hands a drink to . . . none other than her new husband, Jack Barnes (former best friend of Frank’s father, Paula’s first husband). As Jack walks out of the frame, a little girl moves in front of the window, playing a silent harmonica. Frank mouths to her, “Where’s your mother?” She turns and points to Paula.
The shock on Frank’s face is amplified by flashing red lights that suddenly appear behind him on the lawn – dramatic punctuation signifying the end of the fantasy that his family could be made whole again.
“The Christmas Song” plays thoughout this entire scene, and we continue to hear Nat King Cole in the background as Frank is sentenced to solitary confinement in federal prison. As Frank is installed in his cell, the camera moves forward to frame a close-up of the prison door clanging shut behind him. The song’s final notes, a melancholy guitar riff on the melody of “Jingle Bells,” provide a lingering echo of somber finality.
After realizing how deeply embedded the (un-)Christmas motif is in Catch Me If You Can, I did a quick online search to see what anyone else had already written about it. My best discovery was a really brilliant review written by Maurice Yacowar, a professor at the University of Calgary, that appeared in the History of Intellectual Culture: 4.1 (2004). In his review (you can read it here), Yacowar says that Catch Me If You Can may be Spielberg’s most personal – and very Jewish – film since Schindler’s List. Its Christmas focus is no accident, because the film’s underlying theme is about what it’s like to be on the outside looking in – about Spielberg’s own career directing “escapist” movies and “passing” undefined as Jewish – the predicament of every Jew living in a Christian society, not to mention anyone who is different in a culture where everyone else seems to fit the predefined mold.
Once you think about it from this perspective, the outside-looking-in theme becomes obvious. Maybe Nat King Cole’s version of “The Christmas Song” – now rendered incredibly sad – is so very appropriate because another closely-related theme of Catch Me If You Can appears to be the elusive, illusory nature of “idealized reality.”
The “idea” of Christmas as a cultural phenomenon (as opposed to the sacred observation Christ’s birth) is that “Christmas” has become the single day onto which we project all our yearning aspirations for happiness. “Christmas” in this sense is a fantasy, a dream as unachievable as Frank’s fervent belief that if he can only amass enough money, his family will get everything back and recapture the happiness of Christmas Eve 1964.
We plan, we shop, we bake, we travel, we organize – expending an extraordinary amount of energy in an attempt to stage the perfect “Christmas” – because within the experience of “Christmas” we occasionally catch glimpses of what could be, images that glimmer with the tantalizing possibility of an ideal place . . . that cannot be reached.
We remain – all of us – on the outside looking in.
Catch Me If You Can offers up commentary about the superficiality and deceptiveness of “appearance.” In the film’s first Christmas (1964) Frank, Jr., watches as his parents dance next to their Christmas tree. The song they are dancing to, “Embraceable You,” is romantic, and Frank seems enraptured by how much they love each other.
We soon realize how thin their love actually is.
That same song plays again later in the film, as Frank watches another loving couple, this time his fiancée’s parents, wash dishes at the kitchen sink, swaying to the music and standing with their bodies so close to each other that they appear to be dancing. As you see the wistfulness in Frank’s expression, at first you think (at least I thought, anyway): how romantic, how sweet, how they love each other, and how Frank longs for that himself. But then you realize: wait, aren’t these the same people who forced their daughter to have an abortion and then banished her from their home? Only after returning engaged to a man who was a doctor and a lawyer and a Lutheran could Brenda be forgiven and reinstated in the family.
Frank’s outsider status is made painfully clear shortly after this, when we see Brenda’s family gathered together in front of the television to “sing along with Mitch” (an “idealized” Christmas-card image right there). Oblivious to Frank’s discomfort, Brenda deserts him to climb happily onto her father’s lap, leaving her fiancé alone in the center of the sofa, physically separated from the others and awkwardly faking the words to a song that everybody knows except him.
Even the title of Catch Me If You Can is in some ways reminiscent of Christmas, echoing the catchphrase of a fairytale in which a childless old woman bakes a gingerbread man that comes to life. Although she is thrilled to have a son at last, the cookie runs away from her and her husband, taunting them (and all subsequent pursuers) with the phrase
Run, run as fast as you can
You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man
At the end of the fairytale, the Gingerbread Man gets outsmarted by a fox and eaten. But the story was given new life in 1999 by children’s author Jan Brett, in her lavishly illustrated Gingerbread Baby. Brett’s book is integrated into the reading curriculum of many elementary schools around Christmastime, and it features a happier plot twist at the end, in which the saucy little cookie is not eaten.
So, in conclusion . . . ?
Well, I’m not so cynical as to trash our culture’s idealized vision of “Christmas,” the iconic portrait of which, as painted by popular artists like Currier and Ives (and more recently, Thomas Kinkade), has entered our national collective consciousness. At the same time I do find something empty and formulaic about the “Christmas” experience portrayed in holiday movies, advertisements, and television specials. I say this with certain wariness, because to express an opinion counter to the party line of “Christmas” ideology is also to risk being labeled a “Scrooge.” It is therefore worth remembering that Charles Dickens – the man who pretty much single-handedly created our modern idea of Christmas (along with Scrooge as an example of someone not to be) – was quite distant and cold toward his own children and reputedly left his wife for a much younger girlfriend.
So the sentimental picture of how Christmas ought to be – a day marked by benevolent generosity and quality time spent within the loving bosom of the family – was apparently a hypocrisy from the start. Nonetheless, it quickly captured the public’s imagination and coalesced something in the zeitgeist of the mid-1800s to create a new “ideal” for celebrating the day.
Run, run as fast as we can; we can’t catch “Christmas,” it’s the Gingerbread Man. Actually, it’s quite possible that striving for a Dickens-inspired “Christmas” contributes something of great value to society. If we are all outsiders seeking desperately to “belong,” then focusing on the myriad details necessary for creating a “perfect” Christmas may provide a sense of control needed to sustain the illusion that we are masters of our fate – despite the frightening, chaotic world outside our four walls. As Carl Hanratty says to Frank near the end of Catch Me If You Can, “Sometimes it’s easier living the lie.”
Which really, when you think about it, is just another way of saying: you gotta have hope.