Below you'll find the movies that to my mind, best capture the essence of Christmas, year in and year out. These titles seem particularly fitting now, as we see the rampant consumerism of recent years yield to the fundamentals of the holiday-as a special time for family and friends to come together and give thanks. The values and emotions imparted in these timeless films are sure to stoke the spirit of "Peace On Earth, Good Will Towards Men" (and women).
Holiday Inn (1942) - Don't miss this funny, festive Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire musical about two friends who launch an inn open only on holidays. The film is best known for first introducing "White Christmas", the best-selling single of all time, and an instant favorite with troops then overseas. "Inn" remains consistently tuneful and entertaining, with a sublime Irving Berlin score that covers not just Christmas, but all major holidays. And Astaire and Crosby make a winning team. (For the record, I prefer this Crosby feature to the overbaked, oversaturated "White Christmas", released twelve years later.)
It's A Wonderful Life (1946)- A heartwarming holiday treat, Frank Capra's masterful handling of the bittersweet storyline-in which one George Bailey (James Stewart) sacrifices his own dreams to save the family savings-and-loan business and keep his hometown of Bedford Falls out of the greedy paws of a heartless banker-is pure Hollywood magic. Donna Reed (as Bailey's wife, Mary) and Lionel Barrymore (as the banker) give exceptional performances, but Stewart is the dynamic, all-too-human force holding it all together.
Miracle On 34th Street (1947)- Was there ever a better big-screen Santa than Oscar-winner Edmund Gwenn? This delightful fable about an elderly retiree turned Macy's Santa who sets New York a-twitter with his claim to be the real article gets at the heart of the question: if we humans can no longer believe in things we may not understand, what exactly is the point of Christmas? Look for a cute, young Natalie Wood as a disbelieving young girl Gwenn's Kris Kringle converts.
The Bishop's Wife (1947)- Cary Grant portrays Dudley, the suavest of angels who visits Earth at holiday time to set a certain Bishop's priorities straight. Co-starring David Niven as the Bishop and a dazzling Loretta Young as the title character, this joyful, witty film still has something to say about keeping the spirit of Christmas alive all year round. And Cary was never better.
Scrooge (1950)- Based on Charles Dickens's most widely read and enduring story, this definitive 1951 British version outdoes all others for atmosphere and characterization. The incomparable Alastair Sim, a gifted actor who seamlessly inhabits the title role, makes you feel there could be no other Scrooge. The film runs just eighty-five minutes, yet delivers the story's full impact, with Sim's droopy eyes projecting all of Scrooge's terror, shame, and regret.
The Apartment (1960)- Peerless Billy Wilder feature about C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an insurance man climbing the corporate ladder by lending out his bachelor pad for his bosses' assignations. Baxter falls for elevator girl Fran (Shirley MacLaine), but she's still involved in a messy romance going nowhere. Unhappy circumstances draw Fran into Baxter's orbit over the holidays. Will love blossom between these two lost souls? We find out by New Year's, in this poignant tale of loneliness and love.
The Homecoming (1971)- This was the wildly successful TV movie that spawned "The Waltons" TV series. On a Christmas Eve during the Depression, Olivia Walton (Patricia Neal) and her large brood wait anxiously for patriarch John, who's been forced to take a job far from home. With inclement weather making roads impassable, will he make it home for Christmas? The simple, touching "Homecoming" underlines the importance of family love and solidarity over material possessions. Neal is superb.
The House Without A Christmas Tree (1972)- Director Paul Bogart's deceptively unadorned story, adapted from Gail Rock's autobiographical book, involves one transformative Christmas in the 1940's. Precocious Addie (Lisa Lucas) badly wants a Christmas tree, but for James, her widower Dad (Jason Robards), such beauty only brings back his lost wife and past holidays he feels he must forget. He sternly forbids a tree in the house, but underestimates Addie's determination and cunning. See this one for Robards, one of the most powerful actors of his time.
A Christmas Story (1983)- An irresistible, often hilarious 40's-era holiday tale about young Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), growing up in a loving but eccentric family, and his obsession with getting a very special air-gun for Christmas. Initially, his parents (Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon) supply precious little hope. Will Ralphie's desperate yearning wear them down in the end? Based on a Jean Shepherd short story, the movie benefits from an immense heart, rich period detail and quirky comic characters.
A Child's Christmas In Wales (1987)- Spending Christmas with his daughter's family, a grandfather (Denholm Elliott) reminisces with his enraptured grandson Thomas about his own boyhood holiday memories in Wales. Inspired by a Dylan Thomas poem, Don McBrearty's lyrical, heartwarming "A Child's Christmas" is a simple, one-of-a kind piece originally produced for public television. Some of the language may be lost on the little ones, but the movie exudes so much charm and Yuletide spirit that it really won't matter.
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