By Johnny Pomatto
Perhaps the reason the Christmas season seems to start earlier and earlier each year is to provide us with enough time to watch our favorite classic Christmas movies. There are so many of them, and some staples demand to be watched every year, such as IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE or A CHRISTMAS STORY. People often demand at least one telling of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, whether it be the classic Alastair Sim version or one of a more Muppet variety. One must make room for the modern classics, including new favorites like NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION or ELF. There’s also the ones to watch after the kids go to bed, including the very R rated DIE HARD or BAD SANTA. Then of course everyone has a few guilty pleasures that they enjoy more than anyone else in the house, like HOME ALONE or THE SANTA CLAUSE 2: THE MRS. CLAUSE (it’s a lot better than you’d expect). With all of these to choose from, many others are bound to get lost in the shuffle. So I thought I’d highlight some of my personal favorites that usually aren’t at the top of everyone’s stockpile of DVD’s. Some of them you may know, others you may not. But if you’re tired of seeing that kid get his tongue stuck to the pole every year, these are some worthy backups that might find their way into your annual holiday rotation.
REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940)- For those of you who are fans of seeing Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck sexily double-crossing one another in “Double Indemnity,” you might enjoy seeing them fall in love in much lighter fare. Stanwyck plays a shoplifter who is caught and put on trial right before Christmas. When the trial is postponed until after the holiday, her prosecuting attorney, (MacMurray) takes pity on her, bails her out of jail, and takes her home to spend Christmas with him and his family. Naturally the holiday spirit gets to them and the two fall in love, though her impending, post-holiday trial is always looming over the couple. The masterful Preston Sturges, (marking this his last screenplay he would ever not direct), doesn’t let the characters off the hook or give them an easy way out at the end, giving this film an unexpected but nonetheless wonderful ending.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940)- The story of THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER is already known to new generations who grew up watching “You’ve Got Mail,” but that is a poor imitation. Set in pre-war Budapest, Ernst Lubitsch’s tells the tale of the employees of the trinket shop owned by Mr. Matuschek, who viewers will instantly recognize as Frank Morgan, the wonderful Wizard of Oz himself. Two of Matuschek’s employees, (James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan) don’t really get along in the shop, and neither realize that each other are actually the secret pen pals that they have been writing anonymous love notes to. The love story is handled perfectly, but the movie’s best scene comes late in the film, as the ordinarily grouchy and miserly Mr. Matuschek finally softens up and affectionately reaches out to Stewart in an act of contrition. You’ll wish you could do all your Christmas shopping at the titular shop. This film truly has the Lubitsch touch.
HOLIDAY INN (1942)- Not only am I not a fan of the inexplicably beloved Bing Crosby film “White Christmas,” but neither was Bing. He thought that it was a subpar film that people only embraced because of its title song. But that very same Irving Berlin song was first featured in Crosby’s earlier and far superior film HOLIDAY INN. While “White Christmas” matched both Bing and Danny Kaye with love interests, HOLIDAY INN had Crosby and Fred Astaire competing for the same woman, with each using their signature talents to woo Marjorie Reynolds. Fred’s dancing is predictably outstanding, but the reason that every one of us knows the words to “White Christmas” is due entirely to the charming scene when Crosby instructs Reynolds how to sing it, line by line.
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944)- Though this has one of the most iconic Christmas scenes in movie history, this isn’t precisely what I would call a Christmas movie. The story of a close knit family in 1904 St. Louis spans an entire year, and has just as memorable sequences surrounding Independence Day and Halloween. After a perfect Christmas Eve, Judy Garland is struck with the revelation that her family’s impending move to New York means this will be her last Christmas in St. Louis. In a vain effort to comfort her younger sister (the iconic, adorable, little crier Margaret O’Brien), Judy sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” This is not the uplifting Bing Crosby version of the song about “hanging shining stars upon highest boughs.” This is about having a merry Christmas now and trying not to think about how unhappy they’ll all be this time next year. Of course, Vincent Minnelli wouldn’t end his film on such a dour note, and the tears you’re shedding will soon be converted into tears of joy.
THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1947)- Divine intervention comes in the form of Cary Grant in this charming Christmas fable about a bishop, (the always marvelous David Niven) who is struggling with his faith and his marriage to Loretta Young. Grant plays Dudley, an angel sent from Heaven to help Niven and anyone else he happens to come across. Grant is equal parts playful and sincere, and he doesn’t give in to temptation when Young becomes a little too charmed by him. Dudley may not be the most famous Christmas movie angel, (that title undoubtedly goes to Clarence from “It’s A Wonderful Life”), but this is one of those forgotten gems that perfectly balances Christmas merriment and religion, with beautiful results.
3 GODFATHERS (1948)- Christmas stories can pop up in any genre, even in a John Ford western. John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, and Harry Carey Jr. play outlaws on the run in the desert when they stumble upon a stagecoach that has been attacked by Indians, leaving only an infant child alive. Despite the general loose morals of the bandits, they become determined to bring the baby to safety, even if it means facing the lawmen that are pursuing them. It’s certainly a sweet side of John Wayne you’re not used to seeing. The film is a very loose retelling of the story of the three wise men which may not be enough to fully classify it as a “Christmas film,” but I still enjoy it as a welcomed alternative to the usual snow and sleigh bells of the season.
A CHRISTMAS MEMORY (1966)- One of my favorite pieces of writing of all time is Truman Capote’s autobiographical tale of growing up in Alabama with his beloved elderly cousin. A CHRISTMAS MEMORY has only ever been adapted for television, but the original 1966 special, starring Geraldine Page as Ms. Sook, is a magnificent and faithful telling of the story. Capote himself narrates the tale, but even his prose that aren’t included verbatim are lovingly captured by the details of its lived-in setting. The story is incredibly simple, as Truman (referred to as Buddy), and Sook scrounge together what little money they have to make fruitcakes for their friends and relatives. The end of the story always reduces me to a sobbing mess, but I still revisit it as much as I can, and I’m happy to report that you can do, as it’s available to view on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBipwZoJSyU
GREMLINS (1985)- Not every movie that happens to take place during Christmas can be called “a Christmas movie.” I wrestled with putting dark treasures like “Brazil” or “The City of Lost Children” on this list, even if there happens to be a Christmas tree in the background of a scene or two. But although GREMLINS is a movie about nasty little monsters wreaking havoc on a small town, it is undeniably a film for both lovers and haters of the holiday alike. Zach Galligan thinks he’s gotten the coolest gift ever when he unwraps an adorable little Mogwai, but feeding it after midnight (isn’t it ALWAYS after midnight?) causes it to turn into a nasty creature with murder and mischief on its mind. The Gremlins gleefully destroy whatever they encounter, especially Christmas decorations. They even get into the spirit and go caroling. GREMLINS is a giddy, nasty delight from beginning to end, and you will never be able to forget the scene in which Phoebe Cates reveals the reason why she hates Christmas. The story she tells will just make you love the holiday more.
MILLIONS (2004)- Director Danny Boyle won an oscar for his film “Slumdog Millionaire,” but that’s only his second best film with the titular number. MILLIONS tells the story of young boy Damian, (the adorable Alex Etel) who is playing in a field when a suitcase full of money falls from the sky. Thinking it’s a gift from God, Damian wants to give it to the poor, while his brother wants to spend it, or invest in real estate. The Christmas connections to this movie aren’t fully revealed until close to the end but this is an often forgotten, wonderful film for the entire family. The climax of the film, when Damian is treated to a Christmas miracle as reward for his goodhearted efforts is sure to bring tears to your eyes.
A CHRISTMAS TALE (2008)- Every year families come together at Christmas, including families who don’t like each other very much. Arnaud Desplechin’s French family drama A CHRISTMAS TALE centers around dysfunction and strife, but shows that the holiday spirit can bring out the best in anyone. When the black sheep of the Vuillard family (the incomparable Mathieu Amalric) returns home for Christmas after being disowned a few years prior, he threatens to ruin what will be his sister’s last Christmas unless she gets a bone marrow transplant. Heavy stuff, but the film still manages to provide joy, warmth, and even some humor. Plus, Catherine Deneuve looks radiant in the glowing candlelight and red and green color palate of the sweet and sad film.