‘Tis the season for festive libations, holiday cheer, crackling fires, and viewing your roster of holiday movies. Many of us have these yearly essentials, but that doesn’t mean we can’t add some new (old) favorites. Building on Raquel’s list of 5 Gems from the 1940s, I’ll recommend six more classic Christmas-themed films available for rent on DVD.com to warm your hearts this holiday season.
When discussing so-called “perfect” films, one doesn’t often hear mentioned Ernst Lubitsch’s romantic comedy about two warring shop clerks who haven’t realized they’ve already fallen in love through their pen pal correspondence – but let’s add it to the list, shall we?
Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan skillfully play against each other on both ends of the love/hate relationship. The interactions feel spontaneous – not scripted – and each action leads to a wonderfully optimistic and anticipated resolution, but not in any way that you might expect. While you can’t ignore the performances of our leads, it’s supporting players like Frank Morgan, Felix Bressart and William Tracy that deliver some of the most memorable scenes, comedic lines, and moments of true empathy.
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray star in this wonderful Christmas-set comedy four years before they made a decidedly more deadly match in Double Indemnity (1944). Remember the Night begins as a slapstick farce before settling into a more earnest and sentimental romance.
An assistant D.A. (Fred MacMurry) forces a case against a shoplifter to be postponed until after the holiday due to an attack of conscience, but that act of kindness has a downside. Since she has nowhere to go outside a jail cell, she joins him on his trip home to Indiana and their combative relationship builds to a crescendo before softening in front of the home fires.
The final script Preston Sturges wrote before he earned his director stripes features many of his trademark clever twists of phrasing and a deft touch in undermining the hypocritical Hays Production code. Most interesting perhaps about this film is that Stanwyck plays her role as a career criminal. She’s no happenstance thief, and her love affair with her prosecuting D.A. doesn’t ever feel inevitable. Sturges has shoehorned a messy but festive romance inside courtroom melodramedy and somehow it all works. People have the power to affect each other in positive ways when they take the time to see beyond the insulating facades.
An angel named Dudley, played by Cary Grant, aims to repair the work-life balance of an Episocopal Bishop (David Niven) but it seems that the angel has become rather smitten with – you guessed it – the Bishop’s wife, played by the wonderful, glowing Loretta Young.
The comedy, set against the backdrop of Christmas, sounds a little like an It’s a Wonderful Life knockoff, but succeeds because of the charisma of its stars. Grant oozes charm, but also manages to highlight the actor’s rakish talents in wooing everyone he meets, except the Bishop. The tension between the Bishop and his angel becomes sardonic and combative – a unique platform for a feel-good Christmas film.
This is a high-concept story of good people making mistakes but ultimately coming to their senses. It’s also a quintessential star vehicle of the Classic Hollywood era that becomes something greater than the some of its parts. It’s good and wholesome and makes you feel warm inside – but it’s also a star-vehicle for Cary Grant and sometimes that’s all you really need for a night home with the movies.
This sweet and blissfully sentimental film pokes fun at class and social norms and aligns nicely with the philosophies of similarly themed classics Sullivan’s Travels and My Man Godfrey.
Every winter, the second richest man in the world, Michael J. O’Connor leaves his 5th Avenue mansion for warmer climes, and every winter a homeless man by the name of Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore) moves in. This winter, however, McKeever meets some other down-on-their-luck souls and offers them shelter in the mansion. Soon the mansion’s bursting with holiday hope and a multitude of mismatched guests including the tycoon’s runaway heiress, who the gang mistakes for a common thief, her divorced mother, and ultimately daddy himself.
The wonderful cast of character actors provides standout comedic set-pieces and non-cloying warmth. Frank Capra had intended to direct this film, but chose to do It’s A Wonderful Life instead. It’s easy to see why he’d be drawn to the film. If It Happened on 5th Avenue was better known, I’ve no doubt it would become a popular holiday staple.
Nothing about this film explicitly says “Christmas movie” – but the spirit of Christmas lives in this “minor” John Ford Western about three outlaws who promise to shepherd a dying woman’s baby safely across the desert in order to redeem their sins. It’s Three Men and a Baby, except biblical and in the Mojave (which provides a stunning backdrop for poetic sequences like the sandstorm and their trek across a salt lake).
As the three wise men – I mean, bank robbers – John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, and Harry Carey, Jr. overcome some schmaltzy sentimentalism making 3 Godfathers both a satisfying Western and Christmas parable. Plus, you’re watching a John Ford film so you know it’s going to look spectacular.
Absurd coincidences and hokey plot contrivances. Ramshackle narrative pacing. Questionable lead performances. But none of that matters, because this glorious VistaVision/Technicolor musical featuring Irving Berlin’s timeless score, Danny Kaye’s physical comedy, Vera-Ellen’s hoofing, and the voices of Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney serves up the cinematic equivalent of a hot chocolate with a candy cane stirrer and a healthy dollop of whipped cream.
Former World War II GI’s Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye) form a song and dance duo. After many successful years, Davis wants to slow down while Wallace wants to speed up. Noting an attraction between Wallace and showgirl Betty Haynes (Clooney), he tries to engineer a romantic entanglement in Pine Tree, Vermont – where the sisters are booked to play at an inn for the holidays. Due to a lack of snow (and therefore customers) the lodge is at risk of closing and it just so happens to be owned by Major General Waverly, Wallace and Davis’ commanding officer during the War. The guys and gals decide to put on a big show to bring business (and maybe some snow?) back to Pine Tree.
Predominantly a “show musical” whereby most of the performance pieces are framed within a big production (rather than organic, narrative-based song-styling), White Christmas operates with the basic formula of song, dance, joke, melodrama, repeat. It’s 1950’s Christmas pop-art, but it’s also a warm and comforting celebration of indivisible human connections.
James David Patrick is a Pittsburgh-based writer with a movie-watching problem. He has a degree in Film Studies from Emory University that gives him license to discuss Russian Shakespeare adaptations at cocktail parties. You’ll find him crate diving at local record shops. James blogs about movies, music and 80’s nostalgia at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com. Follow him on Twitter @007hertzrumble, Instagram, and Facebook.