Christmas is a time of celebration, of getting together with relatives, exchanging presents, and sitting down to a sumptuous holiday meal. But for the cinephile, Christmas season also means movies - and lots of them. As one who has seen more than his fair share of Christmas movies over the years, I’ve compiled a list of my favorites. I was at first tempted to title this “The Twelve Best Christmas Movies,” but it’s patently absurd, not to mention preposterous, to preach to fellow cinephiles what their favorite Christmas movies should be. What I do ask of readers is to comment - tell us what your favorite Christmas movies are and in what order. We’ll publish your lists on the website.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (WB, 1989): As usual, inept, disaster-prone Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) wants to celebrate in the traditional way, even though his idea of celebration is typically over-the-top. But his plans are ruined when his redneck relatives, led by Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid), decide to visit in this oft-times hilarious movie. Clark seemingly can’t do anything halfway. His Christmas lights blind the neighbors while sending the city’s electrical meters into a spin. His idea of a family Christmas tree is an oversized pine he cuts down in the forest and had trouble getting into his house. And, of course, the grand finale of disaster when Uncle Lewis (William Hickey) throws his lit cigar down a sewage drain into which Cousin Eddie had earlier dumped his port-a-potty sewage from his trailer. It explodes, sending a flaming Santa and reindeer across the sky.
3 Godfathers (MGM, 1948): This poignant John Ford film is not only one of my favorite Christmas movies, but it’s also one of my favorite Westerns. John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and Harry Carey, Jr. are outlaws who just held up the bank at Welcome, Arizona. Pursued by lawman Ward Bond, they are on the way to making their escape when they come across a dying woman (Mildred Natwick) who has just given birth. They promise her they will take care of the baby, and what begins as a standard Western soon morphs into a beautiful Christmas story, with the three bandits taking the place of the three wise men carrying the Christ child through the desert to safety in a town named Jerusalem. Though the religious parallels are there, Ford never forces them, leaving it to the three outlaws, and us in the audience, to discover them.
The Bishop’s Wife (Goldwyn/RKO, 1947): Cary Grant was never more debonair than as Dudley, an angel sent to help a Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), who is too busy with fundraising for a elaborate new cathedral to tend to his family, especially wife Julia (Loretta Young). Henry is losing sight of his family and why he became a churchman. Dudley is sent to remedy the situation, and not necessarily in the way everyone would have preferred. Though everyone loves Dudley, Henry begins to think that Dudley has come to replace him, both at work and in his family’s affections. It was remade in a fashion as The Preacher’s Wife (1996), with Denzel Washington in Grant’s role.
A Christmas Carol (MGM, 1938): Dickens MGM style, with Reginald Owen as Scrooge, Gene Lockhart as Bob Cratchit, and wife Kathleen Lockhart as Mrs. Cratchit. Look for daughter, June, as one of the Cratchit children. Speaking of the children, one of the main flaws in the film is that Tiny Tim is none too tiny, almost as tall as Bob. Leo G. Carroll is the ghost of Jacob Marley, and Ann Rutherford shines as the Spirit of Christmas Past. Lionel Barrymore was originally penciled in a Scrooge, but illness forced him to withdraw.
Remember the Night (Paramount, 1940): Christmas, Preston Sturges style. Sturges wrote the screenplay for this story of Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), a shoplifter arrested for the third time and remanded to court. Prosecutor John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) postpones the trial because it is hard to get a conviction at Christmas time. However, because this would necessitate Lee being in jail over the holiday, Sargent takes pity and arranges her bail. His first move is to take her to her mother’s for the holiday, but after witnessing the cold reception she gets, he decides to take her to his family’s Christmas gathering. Surrounded by a loving family, they fall in love, which in turn creates a new problem: how do they handle the upcoming trial? It’s typical Sturges, with periods of caustic comedy broken up with scenes of sentimentality. Stanwyck and MacMurray are terrific in their roles with great supporting work from Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson, Sterling Holloway, and Paul Guilfoyle. As for Sturges, the film "had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz to make it box office."
Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale, Why Not Productions, 2008): To say the Vuillard family is dysfunctional is putting it mildly. They hate each other, and are only getting together this one Christmas because the family matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has a rare bone cancer and needs a marrow donor. The matches for the marrow come down to her alcoholic son and her mentally disturbed nephew, and after a day spent with them, she’s wondering if it’s even worth going to the trouble of asking one of them to donate. It’s not your usual Christmas movie, but reflective of how most families really are during the holidays, sniping at each other over long-simmering resentments, getting into jealous arguments, and just plain acting obnoxiously. All of which makes it a perfect Christmas movie.
Christmas in Connecticut (WB, 1945): Given her wonderful performances in dramas and noirs, it’s easy to overlook Barbara Stanwyck as a comedienne. However she shines in this movie as Elizabeth Lane, a popular food writer for “Smart Housekeeping” magazine. In truth, she cannot boil water and gets her award-winning recipes from her friend, chef Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall). The bucolic life she describes herself living on a farm in Connecticut with husband and baby is also a fiction. She lives alone in an apartment in New York City. Unfortunately for her, war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) is also an avid fan of her column, and after his harrowing life and death struggle at sea, he dreams of nothing more than sampling her dishes at her farm. Her publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), not only thinks it would be great publicity, but he has also invited himself along. Now Stanwyck has to improvise a husband, baby, farm and cooking skills at the last minute if she’s not to be exposed as a fraud. Only someone like Stanwyck could take this paper-thin plot and make it into a hit. She pulls it off brilliantly, knowing when to put forth and when to pull back on the characterization, and interacting beautifully with her co-stars. Stanwyck is the reason this is one of my Christmas favorites.
A Christmas Carol (Renown Pictures, 1951): Considered as the most definitive and faithful of the Dickens adaptations, it also boasts the great Alastair Sim as Scrooge. Sim plays Scrooge as Dickens envisioned him: a cruelly smug man who has no remorse, no regrets, and feels zero guilt for his selfishness. It’s when he is forced to see the consequences of his life’s choices does he realize that the only way out is to wholly embrace goodness. The scene with the ghost of his partner, Jacob Marley, is particularly chilling, especially Marley’s indignation when Scrooge calls him a good man of business. Marley screams “mankind was my business!” and describes how the chain he “forged in life, link by link” is choking and weighing him down in the afterlife, following it by telling Scrooge his chain was just as long when Marley passed and it has grown even longer. It’s the movie’s most unforgettable scene and paves the way for Scrooge’s redemption, a redemption he is led into kicking and screaming at times. It is exactly the starkness of this version that places it heads and tails above all other adaptations.
It’s a Wonderful Life (Liberty, 1946): Frank Capra’s take on Charles Dickens aims not at the redemption of Scrooge, for greedy misers can never really be redeemed, but the redemption of Bob Crachit. Jimmy Stewart is George Bailey, a man who had big dreams of what he wanted to do with his life, but whom circumstances forced to make do with the life he had. As a result, when his savings and loan comes up $8,000 short due to his Uncle Billy’s forgetfulness, George begins to despair of his life, feeling himself a failure and pondering suicide. He stops to raise a prayer to God, who, upon hearing George, sends Clarence, a most unusual angel, to the rescue. George refuses to have anything to do with Clarence, thinking him a loon, but when he mutters to Clarence that it would be better if he were never born, Clarence takes the novel step of showing George what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he was never born. In short, it’s a first-rate horror show, as George learns how one person’s life and sacrifices can affect so many, even if he is unaware of it. Lionel Barrymore, as the greedy banker Potter, finally gets to play the Scrooge role, though he’ll never reform. That’s Capra’s message: Don’t wait for evil men to see the light, but take the wheel yourselves and steer humanity towards a better destination.
Miracle on 34th Street (20th Century Fox, 1947): It would surprise many to know that the studio that made this renowned Christmas classic, 20th Century Fox, had so little faith in it they released it in May 1947 instead of holding it for the holiday season. It mattered little to the throngs that came out to see it, or the Academy, who awarded Edmund Gwenn the Supporting Actor statue for playing Kris Kringle, which marks the only time a actor has won an Oscar for playing Santa Claus. Gwenn is superb as Kringle, who we first see as a man hired by feisty skeptic Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) to be Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade after the original actor hired to be Santa passed out drunk. Kris soon becomes the Macy’s Santa, eve though Doris is somewhat nervous working with a man who claims he is Kris Kringle. A misapprehension she makes turns into a head-on conflict between Kris and the store’s cruelly incompetent psychologist and results in Kris being committed to Bellevue. Lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne), who loves Doris, takes up his defense. The trial is the highlight of the film, as Gailey argues Kris’s sanity before a judge with higher political aspirations who’s afraid to make the wrong move. When Gailey produces bags and bags of “Dear Santa” letters forwarded to the courthouse by the Post Office and makes the claim that Kris must be Santa Claus because the government recognizes him as such, the judge is spared a difficult decision and frees Kris. It’s a beautifully constructed film that never comes right out and tells us Kris is the real Santa or that he’s not the real Santa. And that’s why it works so well.
The Shop Around the Corner (MGM, 1940): For sheer charm alone, this film cannot be beaten. It’s the heartwarming story of two feuding co-workers, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) in a Budapest gift shop who are unaware they are secret romantic pen pals. Alfred, who is in love with Klara, learns that he is the secret pen pal when she begins to quote his letters without knowing their author. He would like to announce he is the object of her affections but cannot confide it to her; he’s afraid of not measuring up to the fiancée she has imagined him to be. Eventually things come to a head on Christmas Eve, when Klara finally confides to Alfred that she finds him attractive does he come forth as her secret pen pal. Almost everything about this movie is pitch perfect, from the direction by Ernst Lubitsch to the camerawork by William Daniels to the supporting cast, which includes Frank Morgan, Felix Bressart, Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, and William Tracy. And, of course, Stewart and Sullavan, who bring a sense of earnestness to an otherwise frilly story.
A Christmas Story (MGM, 1983): For me picking this film is a no-brainer because I grew up with its author, Jean Shepherd. Spending my childhood in the New York Metropolitan Area, I tuned into Shepherd’s radio show in WOR-AM every night, and was familiar with the tales A Christmas Story was based on long before he published them in the collections In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories. He was a greatly underrated humorist; not until A Christmas Story came out was he mentioned in any anthology of American humor. But there was no one else who understood the pulse of American life better than Jean Shepherd. The plot of the movie is pure Shep: All Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun with all the accoutrements, just like the ones he saw in his boys’ magazine. But whenever the subject comes up, all he hears from adults is “you’ll shoot your eye out.” Ralphie looks for any loophole to get his prize, and thinks he has it in going to see Santa at Higbee’s department store. But when he blurts out his heart’s wish to Santa, all he gets is a quizzical stare accompanied by the phrase “you’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” But while other writers must be satisfied to stop with the basic plot, Shepherd makes razor-sharp observations on the Christmas season, especially as it pertains to a kid: “Christmas was on its way. Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, about which the entire kid year revolved.” No truer words were ever spoken.