My Favorite Christmas Movies
In thinking about Christmas movies the other day, it occurred to me that my favorites, almost without exception, are among the bleaker stories with that holiday as a theme or backdrop. These movies mostly have happy endings, mind you, it’s just that they are rooted in the difficult journey that is life, regardless of the time of year or the cheeriness of this particular holiday season in question. Like it is for a lot of people, this holiday can be hard for me. It’s filled with expectations and schedules set by others when my one true desire is to be quiet and at peace. Growing up, holidays were perhaps the most stressful times in an already strained household. That said, there are beloved family traditions I inherited and continue to this day, most of them revolving around food, which is my preferred way of gift giving to others. I love cooking and serving the traditional Christmas Eve baccala dinner that many of my fellow Italian-Americans enjoy.
But what I really want to do with this post is to share some of my thoughts about the Christmas movies that mean the most to me. One of my litmus tests for movies on my list is that they must be films that I will sit down and watch regardless of the season. Though Christmas is a clear theme in the movies, these movies work independent of that holiday and time of year. My list is sure to be missing many of your favorites. Frankly, I haven’t seen most of the more commercial contemporary Christmas movies. Perhaps I can interest you enough in some of my favorites you’re not already familiar with that you’ll seek them out and give them a try. Perhaps some of them will make their way onto your own favorites list.
My 15 favorite Christmas movies–
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
This is Ernst Lubitsch at his most masterful. A perfect balance of comedy and drama, sarcasm and schmaltz. The much-imitated storyline is handled with great finesse that only a Lubitsch could juggle so deftly in collaboration with the impeccable cast and crew – all at the peak of their powers. James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan work together beautifully as antagonistic shop workers whose pen pal relationship spawns love but this is ultimately Frank Morgan’s film. He’s the beleaguered shop owner whose lost hope is restored. This romance amidst despair will move you to laughs and tears without ever making you feel manipulated. It just flows, it just happens, like real life, and you can’t help but respond.
Meet John Doe (1941)
As caustic as Billy Wilder satires could be, Frank Capra could be every bit as dark and sardonic in his work. In one of the sharpest critiques of American greed ever put on screen, a female reporter (Barbara Stanwyck) concocts a circulation-boosting scheme that catapults a hobo (Gary Cooper) to fame and spawns a populist movement only to have malicious forces usurp it for their own power grabbing ends. A fateful deadline looms when Cooper, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders for having fronted a fraud, opts to follow through on his alter-ego’s plan to jump from a building on Christmas to protest the ills of the world. Stanwyck, who’s fallen in love with him and feels awful for the betrayal, races to the top of the building to save her man.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
I recently did an entire post about this movie. It is, for my tastes anyway, as profound a statement on the human condition as can be found in a cinema entertainment vehicle. I mean, it’s all there. Man’s inhumanity to man posed right alongside man’s self-sacrifice and the enduring qualities of love, faith. loyalty and dreams. George Bailey is our Every Man stand-in and the heartache of his perpetually deferred dreams and seemingly worthless life leave him on the brink of ruin and suicide. Even if you’ve never been that low, though I suspect most of us have for at least a moment or an interlude, we can identify with George ultimately finding wholeness and oneness in the simple pleasures of family and community, service and self-sacrifice. It is a beautifully evocative lesson in the power of humility, gratitude, redemption and forgiveness.
Miracle on 34th Street (1944)
I love this urbane take on a pair of career-driven single New Yorkers who use a child’s affections and an old man’s eccentricities to broker their on-again, off-again relationship. Single mom Maureen O’Hara is a hard driving Macy’s marketing executive whose little girl. Natalie Wood, has adopted her pragmatist views on frivolous matters like Santa Claus. O’Hara’s character may be a bit too brittle at first considering how quickly she softens at attorney John Payne’s overtures, but that’s a minor quibble. The real story concerns Edmund Gwenn as the charming, charismatic Kris Kringle. He plays matchmaker for the couple by winning over Wood, who doubts he’s the real McCoy until she learns to trust her imagination. Mom follows suit and an instant family is born, but not before Kris proves his good name in court.
The Apartment (1960)
Billy Wilder caught the soulless character of modern corporate America and the misogyny of the male animal in this brutally honest portrait of what an Every Man might be willing to do to get ahead under the right circumstances. Jack Lemmon is just another number at a big insurance company before he agrees to let executives use his apartment for their extramarital trysts in exchange for a promotion. Shirley MacLaine is an elevator operator there whose dalliance with big shot Fred MacMurray plays out at Lemmon’s pad. Lemmon hates himself and MacMurray when he discovers his boss has no intention of fulfilling his promise to MacLaine of leaving his wife for her. Lemmon must decide between his career and doing the right thing.
Holiday Affair (1949)
This is an unusually mature look at adult romantic entanglements for a 1940s-era Hollywood Christmas movie. Attorney Wendell Corey and department store secret shopper Janet Leigh have a long-term thing going. She’s a single mom not ready to settle down again, at least not with Corey, even though he’s a nice guy who adores her and is just waiting for her to say yes. Trouble is, her young son doesn’t much cotton to Corey. Meanwhile, the boy and his mother fall for the charms of Robert Mitchum, a veteran and drifter who drops into their lives through meet-cute plot turns that make the two men rivals for the affection of this fetching mother-son package. Corey is the pragmatist. Mitchum, the dreamer.
The Dead (1987)
John Huston was dying when he directed this beautifully muted tone poem based on the James Joyce short story. In a career of understated masterworks, Huston achieved a purity and simplicity in this work that ripples with deep currents of love and loss. It is a melancholic tale that on the surface appears to be a trifle but then layer by layer reveals itself to be about the perplexing vagaries of life and death and what it means to be a couple who’ve endured the loss of a child for which no solace seems possible. It, too, is about the nature of family and community and the ritual of gathering together over a meal to share our humanity and to find some warmth and light amidst the cold and dark. There is stark beauty and gravity attached to every word, inflection, gesture and touch in this autumnal drama where memories cling to the season like freshly fallen snow. In cinematic terms, it is a real lesson in the effective use of negative space and subtext.
A Christmas Memory (1966)
I recall seeing this television adaptation of the Trumam Capote story on television as a child and being captivated by its intimacy and nostalgia. This movie is available for free on YouTube and I intend watching it between now and New Year’s. It will mark the first time I’ve seen it in perhaps 45 or 50 years. Geraldine Page is magnificent as the fey middle-aged woman who is best friends with her young cousin Buddy. The pair live in a rural home with stern older relatives. The woman and boy treasure being companions because their warm, close confederacy girds against the harsh world outside them. Much of the story revolves around the two preparing for Christmas – gathering pecans and buying the necessary stores for making fruit cakes they send to people they admire. Then there’s the finding and chopping down of the tree, lugging it back and decorating it. And finally, the exchange of gifts and flying their kites on what will be their last Christmas together. All of these things are acts of love. Capote adapted his own story with Eleanor Perry and Frank Perry directed.
Bob Clark’s adaptation of the Jean Shepherd story doesn’t try to be too coy or cute but plays its rich satire and occasional cynicism for all its worth. The movie portrays classic holiday family and childhood scenarios most of us can identify with, even though the story’s set in the 1940s and many of its references are obscure for folks born after, say 1968. The themes of bullying, bickering parents, childhood dreams and Santa anxiety are pretty universal. Peter Billingsley is spot-on as Ralphie, an All-American boy still young enough to believe in fables but getting just old enough to know all things aren’t as they seem. Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon are pitch-perfect as his harried but loving parents. For all the things that get mocked by this tale, it’s a sweet, nostalgic retelling of Americana innocence gone by.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
Perhaps the most inspired Xmas story of them all is this animated TV adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic that gives us one of cinema’s greatest villains, the Grinch, in all his mendacity, arrogance and theatrics. Who knew that Dr. Seuss was prescient enough to create an ego-maniacal character that anticipated Donald Trump? We can only hope that somewhere under the president-elect’s cold, hard exterior beats a heart that even the Grinch possessed. We just have to hope that something happens to humble Mr.Trump so that he can soften his avarice against today’s equivalent of the Who’s. Cartoon master Chuck Jones directed this classic and Boris Karloff indelibly voiced the Grinch. The primary colors and dynamic action sequences are eye-poppingly cool. Albert Hague composed the memorable music.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
The languid, zen-like idyll of Peanuts reached its zenith in this TV special that has sad-sack Charlie Brown learn the true meaning of Christmas with help from his family of friends: Lucy, Linus and Snoopy. I believe the genius of Charles Schultz with his Peanuts characters was tapping into the longings at the core of the basic human condition. We all desire to be loved and we all want attention to be paid and just like Charlie Brown we’re willing to suffer indignities in pursuit of these things. Having a few friends we can count on sure helps. They may drive us crazy but we know they’re there for us in the end. The minimalist jazz score is so right on for the simple images and messages.
White Christmas (1954)
For a feel-good Christmas movie, this one’s hard to beat. Having seen the stage play adapted from it, I can see why this story has legs that crosses generations and mediums. The characters are likable and the situations engaging. In my opinion this movie works as well as it does because of Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. They make a great team as the veteran entertainers who conspire to help out their old commanding officer from World War II. In fact, I like Crosby and Kaye better than the Road movie tandem of Crosby and Bob Hope. As the retired general fallen on hard times, Dean Jagger has just the right blend of stoicism and sweetness. Rosemary Clooney and Vera Allen lack charisma and a couple dance sequences nearly stop the picture cold, but aside from those quibbles this Christmas chestnut still holds up as funny, heartwarming escapist fare. Director Michael Curtiz could still keep a story moving but this was grade B material compared to the great films he helmed earlier, Casablanca among them.
Going My Way (1944)
Bing Crosby is the avuncular Father O’Malley come to rescue a failing Catholic parish whose curmudgeonly old pastor, Father Fitzgibbon, played by Barry Fitzgerald, resists change and resents being put out to pasture. This is old-fashioned Hollywood hokum that tickles the funny bone and tugs at the heartstrings. Director Leo McCarey had a light touch with sentimental material and though he comes close to going over the top with this one’s rather precious, nearly saccharine moments, he manages to keep things moving along and undercutting the maudlin bits with sharp humor and repartee.
Nobody does obnoxious better than Bill Murray and here he veers dangerously near alienating viewers but always pulls back from the brink, though I must admit the first time I saw this pic his performance and the overall tone of the film turned me off. But after seeing the picture a few more times, my estimation of him as a megalomaniac media czar and of this updating of A Christmas Carol has risen considerably. Murray makes a fine if loopy Scrooge and in keeping with the Tim Burton-like approach (Richard Donner directed), Carol Kane and David Johansen bring original takes to the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively. There are some nice supporting performances by Alfre Woodard and Michael J. Pollard. But this is all about Murray’s character rediscovering his heart for his fellow man.
Carol for Another Christmas (1964)
Rod Serling wrote and Joseph Mankiewicz directed for television this dark as night fantasy that tackles nothing less than the human condition and humanity’s fate. In the very year that Sterling Hayden co-starred as a raving mad general who instigates nuclear war in Dr. Strangelove, he stars here as an embittered, bigoted Cold War patriot grown callous to the brotherhood of man. His Daniel Grudge is a Scrooge for the modern era whose hardened heart and cold calculus represent the madness of nationalism and the cruelty of the military industrial complex. Haunted by guilt and grief over the loss of his son. he’s visited by spirits who show him horrors and hopes that make him see things in a new way. Though didactic, preachy and slow in places, it’s well worth your time. The eclectic cast includes Ben Gazzara, Peter Sellers, Robert Shaw. Pat Hingle, Percy Rodriguez, James Shigeta, Britt Ekland and Eva Marie Saint. Henry Mancini did the music, The movie can be viewed for free on YouTube.
Some more Xmas movies that I admire:
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
We’re No Angels (1955)
3 Godfathers (1948)
Holiday Inn (1942)
The Polar Express (2004)
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Frosty the Snowman (1969)