I was recently asked about my five favorite Christmas films by Robert Horvat of If It Happened Yesterday, It’s History and The History of the Byzantine Empire. So without further ado, here are my top go-to Christmas favorites.
Actually, there is some further ado. I realized as I was making the list that I came to my favorite Christmas films somewhat late. Apparently I didn’t watch Christmas movies as a kid? Anyway, they all are from 1939 to 1945. The war years seem to be a sweet spot for me and Christmas films.
Remember the Night (1940) – John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) is the upright Assistant DA whose specialty is prosecuting woman because he can appear gentle and therefore not alienate a sympathetic jury. But when Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) steals a diamond bracelet and is caught just before Christmas, he manages to get the trial postponed. Feeling guilty because she now has to spend Christmas in prison, he pays her bail and offers to drive her to her home in Indiana. But she ends up staying at his family home and for the first time experiences what a loving family can be like
That description sounds syrupy, but it’s actually a funny script that is both touching and ironic. Written by Preston Sturges, he said it had a little bit “of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz.” Sturges’ idea was that love made Lee honest and John crooked. Lee is a street-smart, petty thief and con artist who appears confident, but is really longing for stability and love. We discover that her mother always thought she would come to no good and Lee is living out her expectations. Meanwhile John’s mother (played by Beulah Bondi) always expected him to succeed, which he does, though falling in love with Lee makes him want to break the law to help her.
The ending is not your typical happy ending; there is room for several interpretations, but it is still completely satisfying. Also in the film is Sterling Holloway.
Bachelor Mother (1939) – I love nearly everything Ginger Rogers appeared in in the 1930s. Bachelor Mother was made near the end of her collaboration with Fred Astaire at RKO and was a hit for her. Polly Parrish is out of work in New York when she sees a woman leave a baby on the steps of an orphanage. She picks the baby up, but is then mistaken for the baby’s mother. When she denies this, they go to her former employers at the John B. Merlin and Son department store. Thinking that her abandonment of the baby is related to losing her job, John B. Merlin’s son, David (David Niven), insists that she keep her baby and only then will he give her job back.
She agrees out of desperation and soon David falls in love. Adding to the fun is David’s father (Charles Coburn), who assumes the baby is his grandchild and wants to raise the child himself since David and Polly don’t seem willing to do the right thing, as he imagines it. Ginger Rogers always excelled at these kinds of roles: a working girl, tough and yet sweet, not above a little conniving, but essentially honest. Pure delight.
Holiday Inn (1942) – Holiday Inn is one of two films that Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire made together and they are a fantastic duo of contrasting styles and camaraderie. They even get a song about their contrasting styles. Crosby sings of how he’ll woo the girl through singing, while Astaire says that he’ll sweep her off her feet with dancing. In a fun bit of joshing, Crosby tries to dance and Astaire tries a little singing; neither with any success. They remain throughout the film, semi-friendly rivals for the affections of not one, but two girls.
Jim Hardy (Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Astaire) have a joint act, but when Hardy loses his girl to Ted, he decides to relax and enjoy life and buy a farm. The farm isn’t as relaxing as he’d hoped, so he turns his farm into an Inn. The idea is that he’ll put on a show every holiday: Christmas, Washington’s Birthday, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, Easter, The 4th of July, etc. But inevitably, he and Ted end up fighting over another woman, sabotaging each other at every turn, in between some fantastic songs and dances, all written by Irving Berlin. Fred Astaire dances with firecrackers, the song “White Christmas” is introduced for the first time by Crosby, Astaire dances while drunk, Crosby sings “Easter Parade.”
Christmas in Connecticut (1945) Another great Christmas film starring Barbara Stanwyck! Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck) writes a column about her farm in Connecticut, her husband and baby and all the wonderful food she cooks, which is followed faithfully by female readers around the country. The only hitch is that none of it’s true. She can’t even cook and gets her recipes from a friend, Felix (S.Z. Sakall) who owns a restaurant.
But when a sailor (Dennis Morgan) miraculously survives having his ship torpedoed, the magazine’s owner, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) has the idea for a publicity stunt where they’ll invite the sailor to her farm and give him a taste of the ideal American domesticity. Of course, she has to then scramble to find a farm, a husband and even a baby so she doesn’t lose her job. She also brings Felix along to cook for her. But when the sailor arrives, she finds herself attracted and mayhem ensues.
The incredible cast also includes Una O’Connor and Reginald Gardiner.
Shop Around the Corner (1940) – One of my favorite Ernst Lubitsch films, this is the film that also first made me really like Jimmy Stewart. Two co-workers at a leathergoods shop in Budapest, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan), do not get along with each other, but what they don’t realize is that they are secret pen palls. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was remade several times as the musical In The Good Old Summertime and Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail.
It’s a completely charming story with a bit of a dark side involving a side plot with a suicide attempt, infidelity and loneliness. Alfred Kralik and co-worker Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) discuss how much money you need to support a family. Alfred and Klara, in their letter writing, are reaching out for something beyond the mundane of work, as they discuss everything from philosophy, poetry and culture. Ironically, they bond intellectually and it is only when they meet in person that it becomes difficult to navigate through their attraction to each other, which manifests itself as dislike and arguments. The film also stars Frank Morgan of Wizard of Oz fame.
The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (1966) – Here’s one Christmas film I always watched faithfully as a child. Dr. Suess’ book is faithfully adapted as an animated TV film narrated by Boris Karloff and to me, Boris Karloff will always be the Grinch, no matter how many of his iconic horror films I see. The remake with Jim Carrey has nothing on the original, which still makes me smile endlessly.
Larceny Inc. (1942) – Edward G. Robinson became famous playing brutal gangsters, but he also made many comedic gangster films. One of these is Larceny Inc., where he is just out of prison and wants to turn over a new leaf. But he needs money to buy the dog racing track that will enable to be both honest and rich and the bank won’t give him a loan, so he decides that he must commit one more crime. He buys a luggage shop that is right next door to the bank and begins tunneling in the shop’s basement. But despite all his attempts, his luggage shop is a financial success and he begins to make friends with his shop owner neighbors. Most of the story takes place during Christmas time and we even get to see him dressed as Santa!
An Affair to Remember (1957) – And I have to mention this one, which Nora Ephron used for inspiration in her film Sleepless in Seattle. It’s been called sappy, syrupy and hopelessly coincidental, but I love it and always cry at the end (just like Rosie O’Donnell and Meg Ryan – the ending takes place on Christmas day). It is tremendously helped by the sparkling chemistry and dialogue between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. The film is actually a remake of Love Affair, which Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, another superior film.
Ahhh! After completing this post I realized that I forgot about The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), directed and written by Preston Sturges. A hilarious screwball comedy about a young woman in a small town in America who parties, gets drunk, marries and can’t remember who she married. But she’s pregnant and the film is about her family’s reaction, the town’s reaction and the attempts of her suitor to help her. Starring Betty Hutton, Eddie Bracken and William Demarest.