Many films have memorable Christmas scenes, but there are way too many to do justice to the subject so I am just going to concentrate on those that are set specifically at the holiday itself with two exceptions – both of which feature songs that have become holiday standards.
Despite limiting myself to films specifically about the holiday, there are still way too many to cover. I am not going to talk about every silly grade Z film that comes along to exploit the holiday nor am I, regrettably, going to be able to explore the rich heritage of TV movies about the holiday which fall outside of Oscar’s scope.
Although Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women encompasses more than the holiday itself, its extended Christmas scene early in the novel as well as all the films made from it, makes it a holiday treat. Though some prefer the 1949 and 1994 remakes, I still think George Cukor’s 1933 version with Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Frances Dee, Jean Parker, Spring Byington and Edna May Oliver is the best. It is also the first Christmas film to be honored by Oscar, receiving three nominations including Best Picture and a win for Best Adapted Screenplay.
As I noted recently in my profile of Charles Dickens, film versions of A Christmas Carol go back to the early days of silent films, but the first major Hollywood version of the classic story was not made until 1938. MGM contract player Lionel Barrymore had been doing a highly successful version on radio for several years, and MGM wanted him for the film version, but by this time Barrymore’s arthritis had forced him to spend most of his time in a wheelchair, so he had to reluctantly bow out of the production. Reginald Owen took over and provided a marvelous substitution. This version is merrier than the definitive 1951 version but suffers in comparison.
Set during the holiday selling season, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner inexplicably opened in January of 1940 instead of during the holiday season when it might have become a bigger hit. Time has been kinder than contemporary audiences were, making the story of warring store clerks (Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart) who are secret pen pals, into one of the best loved romantic comedies of all time. The supporting work of Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, Felix Bressart and William Tracy adds immeasurably to the fun.
That same year Hollywood gave us the first memorable modern film set entirely at Christmas time, Mitchell Leisen’s romantic comedy, Remember the Night, with Barbara Stanwyck as a petty thief and Fred MacMurray as the Assistant D.A. who takes charge of her during the Christmas – New Year’s court recess, where he takes her home to spend the holidays with his mother and aunt, played by Beulah Bondi and Elizabeth Patterson at their charming best as instantaneous Cupids.
Frank Capra gave us one of his darkest comedies, 1941’s Meet John Doe with Stanwyck as a cynical reporter and Gary Cooper as the homeless man who plans to commit suicide on New Year’s Eve. As with all Capra films, there are marvelous supporting performances in this one, turned in by the likes of Edward Arnold, James Gleason, Walter Brennan, Spring Byington and Gene Lockhart.
Mark Sandrich’s Holiday Inn is a charming, if gimmicky, musical about a vacation resort that is only open on holidays, a plot device used to incorporate as much of the Irving Berlin catalogue as possible into it including 1933’s “Easter Parade”. His new Christmas song, however, soon became the biggest hit recording of all time and won an Oscar to boot. Sung by Bing Crosby, who starred in the film with Fred Astaire, it was a little thing called “White Christmas”.
They don’t come any more downbeat than Robert Siodmak’s 1944 film of W. Sommerset Maugham’s Christmas Holiday which Universal acquiesced to allow Denna Durbin to make as an antidote to all those sweet little films she made that grossed millions for the studio.
Co-starring Gene Kelly as her no-good husband and Gale Sondergaard as her mother-in-law from Hell, the film’s best moments were when Durbin got to sing Irving Berlin’s “Always” and the Frank Loesser tune she introduced in the film, “Spring Will be a Little Late This Year”.
Christmas Eve provides the climax for Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis in which Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Margaret O’Brien, whose morbid five year-old character won the seven year-old child star a special achievement Oscar for best juvenile performance of 1944.
Stanwyck was back in holiday mode in Peter Godfrey’s 1945 comedy, Christmas in Connecticut. Playing a magazine writer who poses as the perfect housekeeper, she must find a model home to impress her visiting publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) and a newly minted Navy war hero (Dennis Morgan) in a hurry. Cuddly S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall and acerbic Una O’Connor are among her co-conspirators in the perfect film to play in the background while you’re decorating your own house for the holidays.
1945 was also the year of Joseph Kane’s little known The Cheaters with superb work by Joseph Schildkraut as an old actor fallen on hard times who reminds larcenous hosts Billie Burke and Eugene Pallette of the true meaning of Christmas. Highly reminiscent of My Man Godfrey in tone and style, it’s a gem that is well worth seeking out.
A flop upon its initial release, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life has become the most popular Christmas film of all time, primarily due its availability on TV beginning in the 1970s, but also because the film about a man who gets to see how poor life would be without him, speaks more to our cynical times than it did in the days of its initial release. It was the favorite film of both Capra and star James Stewart.
Another perennial, George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street with its Oscar winning performance by Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle was one of four major Christmas films released in 1947. That year also brought us Cary Grant as an angel come down to earth to brighten the lives of episcopal bishop David Niven and his wife Loretta Young in Henry Koster’s The Bishop’s Wife with more than a little help from Monty Woolley, Gladys Cooper, James Gleason and Elsa Lanchester. It was also the year that brought us Victor Moore at his rascally best as a rascally squatter in It Happened on Fifth Avenue. Ann Harding, who co-starred in that film, was the center of attention in Christmas Eve as the old lady at who inspires a family reunion which encompasses George Raft, George Brent, Randolph Scott, and Joan Blondell.
Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 version of Little Women with June Allyson, Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor and Lucile Watson was the first version in color and it appropriately won the Oscar for Best Art Direction.
Not a Christmas movie per se, but Henry Koster's Come to the Stable with a screenplay by clare Booth Luce, featuring a Christmas miracle, recieved a whopping seven Oscar nominations, albeit no wins. Recent winenrs Loretta Young and Celeste Holm were nominated once again for their portrayals of nuns.
Brian Desmond Hurst’s barely released 1951 version of A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim's great performance as Scrooge, has over time become justly celebrated, but George More O’Ferrell’s 1952 British film, The Holly and the Ivy with Ralph Richardson, Celia Johnson, Margaret Leighton and Denholm Elliott remains relatively obscure. The tale of an English minister and his family reunited at holiday time is well worth seeking out.
Michael Curtiz’s 1954 film, White Christmas is a quasi-remake of Holiday Inn albeit set at just one holiday with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, a last minute substitute for Fred Astaire, aided and abetted by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen.
One of the loveliest of all Christmas films, 1957's All Mine to Give, from TV director Allen Reisner, was barely released at all, but thanks to TCM, has become a perennial TV favorite. Glynis Johns and Cameron Mitchell are the parents of twelve, inlcuding Rex Thompson and Patty McCromack. What happens to them is all in the film's title which refers to a Christmas Day chore that must be performned by young Thompson.
After a long dry spell, a film set at Christmas once again came to the forefront. Anthony Harvey’s 1968 film, The Lion in Winter, gave us the unexpected pairing of 36 year-old Peter O’Toole and 61 year-old Katharine Hepburn as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine fighting over Henry’s would-be successor at Christmas of 1183. Hepburn won the third of her four Oscars, while O’Toole had to be content with the third of his eight nominations.
The first musical version of A Christmas Carol, this once named for its lead character Scrooge, delightfully embodied by Albert Finney in 1970, become the first and only version to date to have a place at the Oscar table with its four nominations.
Nostalgia for Christmases of the 1940s propelled Bob Clark 983 film, A Christmas Story to instant cult status while John Huston’s sublime last film, 1987’s The Dead from James Joyce’s The Dubliners, which earned his son Tony an Oscar nod for Best Adapted Screenplay, was slower to achieve the same distinction..
The 1990 megahit Home Alone made household names of director Chris Columbus and star Macaulay Culkin and pulled off a couple of Oscar nominations to boot.
A pair of 2003 comedies, Bad Santa and Elf appealed to wildly different audiences while 2004’s Noel; 2005’s The Family Stone and 2006’s The Holiday made the Yuletide bright for the next three years running.
Oscar nominations for holiday films stopped for a while where they began with the 1994 version of Little Women, which was embraced by Oscar with three nominations including one for Wynona Ryder for Best Actress. Six years later How the Grinch Stole Christmas received three nominations and won an Oscar for Best Makeup.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), directed by Frank Capra
If you haven’t seen Capra’s masterpiece by now you have either been working every Christmas Eve for the past forty years or so or don’t have a TV. Suffice it say that James Stewart’s Everyman; Donna Reed’s adoring and adorable wife; Lionel Barrymore’s meanest man in town and Henry Travers’ angel Clarence have attained screen immortality without your help, thank you very much.
MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947 ), directed by George Seaton
We tend to see this more as a Thanksgiving movie than a Christmas film, but it’s the only film I can think of that covers the entire Christmas season, or at least the commercial, rather than the spiritual, end of it, that has come to epitomize Christmas in the Western world of the last sixty plus years. Edmund Gwenn’s twinkly eyed Kris Kringle (AKA Santa Claus), and a dream cast that includes Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood, Gene Lockhart, William Frawley and an unbilled Thelma Ritter, make this a film to treasure no matter which holiday you choose to view it on.
THE LION IN WINTER (1968), directed by Anthony Harvey
A chilling Christmas in the middle ages is the setting for the intrigue in the court of Henry II as he and his imprisoned wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, battle it out over the royal succcession. Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, John Castle, Jane Merrow, Nigel Terry and Nigel Davenport bring enormous acting talent to bear with O’Toole and Hepburn especially something to behold.
THE DEAD (1987), directed by John Huston
Taking place on the Feast of the Epiphany, or Little Christmas, Huston’s last film is an old man’s film in the best sense of the word. Tony Huston’s perfectly pitched screenplay, and the performances of Anjelica Huston, Donald McCann and the rest of the cast make this a Christmas movie to enjoy at any time of the year.
THE FAMILY STONE (2005), directed by Thomas Bezucha
Ridiculously marketed as a yuk-yuk Sarah Jessica Parker comedy, this incisive family film had much more to offer, not the least of which was Diane Keaton’s magnificent central performance as the family matriarch. It deserves to be discovered or re-discovered.
CHRISTMAS AND OSCAR
- Little Women (1933) - 3 nominations, 1 win
- Meet John Doe (1941) - 1 nominations, no win
- Holiday Inn (1942) - 3 nominations, 1 win
- Christmas Holiday (1944) - 1 nomination, no win
- Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) - 4 nominations, no wins
- Miracle on 34th Street (1947) - 4 nominations, 3 wins
- The Bishop’s Wife (1947) - 3 nominations, 1 win
- It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947) - 1 nominations, no win
- Little Women (1949) - 2 nominations, 1 win
- Come to the Stable (1949) - 7 nominations, no wins
- White Christmas (1954) - 1 nomination, no win
- The Lion in Winter (1968) - 3 nominations, 1 win
- Scrooge (1970) - 4 nominations, no wins
- The Dead (1987) - 2 nominations, no wins
- Home Alone (1942) - 2 nominations, no wins
- Little Women (1994) - 3 nominations, no wins
- How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) - 3 nominations, 1 win