Thursday, December 12, 2013

10 Classic Christmas Films You (Probably) Haven't Seen But Should

Who doesn't love their yearly Christmas classics? The Santa Clause, Elf, A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, It's a Wonderful Life, and all the staples of what really fill out your holiday season? And back in October I listed 13 Classic Horror films you (probably) hadn't seen. So I felt it only appropriate to do the same for the greatest Holiday there is, and also because, let's face it, I'm doing you a huge favor by turning you on to these wonderful films. So, you know, you're welcome.

Kidding. (No I'm not.) What's important is that you watch these pieces of art. If you're in the minority of people living in the year 2013 who has seen them, God bless you, share them with your friends. Because I think it's hard to argue, there's something extra comforting about that classic black and white Christmas feel. I love my modern classics, don't get me wrong, but cozying up next to your hunny to watch an old movie, ESPECIALLY at Christmastime, is one of the most valuable experiences on this earth. And if you don't have a hunny this Holiday season, then these films will teach you game. Let's face it fellas, no gal likes a saggy pants schlup. It's a scientific fact that women love charming, kind, good humored fellas. (I'm pretty sure that actually is a scientific fact...) These films will teach you how to be that man. Also it will bring you great joy and help teach you about the true meaning of Christmas, in case you'd forgotten what it is.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good movie watching night!

10. A Christmas Carol (1938)

You've already seen this. Probably thirteen different versions of it. And I can guarantee your favorite is the version starring the Muppets. And that's perfectly alright...because that's my favorite version as well. But there's something to be said for this original version of Charles Dickens' Christmas classic.

Plot wise what can I say? Old miser Ebenezer Scrooge hates Christmas. He's a rich curmudgeon who cares for no one but himself, even the poor and the suffering because, most of all, they're bad for his business. But when Scrooge is visited by 3 Christmas spirits, he just may have a change of heart like his good friend the Grinch.

Though it's certainly not reinventing the wheel, this version, filmically, is the wheel. There were iterations that came before it, but until this version it was mostly very low budget, often short adaptations of the story. In a way, this is the first classic Hollywood production of the classic story and was not to be remade again until 1951's Scrooge.

It's worth checking out because it still brings tears to my eyes, no matter how many times I've read the story or how many different versions I've seen on both the stage and the screen. I think there's something incredibly valuable in a film that can evoke such wonderful emotion despite how many times it seems to be shown or played or done to death. This is living proof that, honestly, A Christmas Carol cannot be done to death. In my opinion, though it may not be my favorite Christmas film (as that is reserved for It's a Wonderful Life) I think it is easily the greatest Christmas story that has ever been told second only to the birth of Jesus Christ. It's inspired countless other tales, films, plays, books, on and on until the end of time. It is the truest, most pure telling of such a simple story yet it can and has changed lives for, as of this year, 170 years.

Some nice touches in this version, I think, are a little more focus on Scrooge's nephew Fred, who helps balance the story in nearly three equal parts Scrooge, himself, and the Cratchit family. The acting is wonderful and the film clocks in at only 69 minutes, making it precise and perfect. You'd be hard pressed to find a version of this story that isn't at least palatable, and this version is easily, for me, in the top three of the myriad adaptions this story has seen.

9. Beyond Tomorrow (1940)

Three wealthy, but lonely, millionaires, George, Allan, and Michael are spending Christmas alone this year. Well, they weren't supposed to. Originally they were planning on company for a lovely Christmas eve dinner, but when they're expected company can't make it and cancels, the three are left with a potential feast that may go unappreciated. So, on a whim, Michael decides they should each throw their wallets out onto the street and see who returns them. Whomever does so will be invited to share a wonderful dinner with them and get out of the cold. Of the three wallets, only two are returned, the first by Texan James Houston, a good old fashioned country boy with the voice of an angel, and the second by schoolteacher Jean Lawrence. The millionaires get to play host to some very needy folks as well as matchmaker as James and Jean both inevitably fall in love. But when the three rich men are killed in a plane accident and James and Jean begin to drift apart, it's up to the spirits of George, Allan, and Michael to reunite the distant lovers.

It's a very simple, cute film with a lot of heart warming laughs. Michael O'Brien (George Melton) steals the show as the most benevolent of the wealthy men. He's portly and jolly and more important than his money are his friends, which he goes to great lengths to ensure their happiness.

The story serves as a great reminder of what those less fortunate than us could benefit from if we just opened our doors,and hearts, to the outside world and invited strangers in. That may sound a little too good to be true, but, being a person who believes people are generally good and kind, I think we'd all be very pleased to find that if we did the same as these three men, we may just end up changing some lives.

8. The Bishop's Wife (1947)

You may have seen the, kind of, recent The Preacher's Wife (1996) starring Denzel Washington. Same movie. But The Bishop's Wife is the original, and although I love Denzel, Cary Grant plays the lead character Dudley in this film. I think The Preacher's Wife is actually not a terrible remake and stars Whitney Houston opposite Denzel, who is nice to see especially if you're a fan of hers and miss her terribly.

But we're living in a day and age where I think people don't realize they've seen the films that are remakes to older, classic films, and this is a key example.

Dudley is a guardian angel sent to aid Episcopalian Bishop Henry Brougham as he hopes to build a new cathedral for his congregation. Yes, Dudley is sent to help, but not quite in the way Bishop Brougham would like. Over time, Brougham has lost sight of what's more important than a fancy new building, the love of his wife and the reasons he took up his cross in the first place. But because everyone else but the Bishop falls for Dudley, he begins to think the angel is out to take everything he holds dear, especially the love of his wife. But the angel's intentions couldn't be further from that suspicion and, in the process, some wonderful comedy and drama follow suit to a sweet ending that could help even the Grinch's heart grow three sizes.

What's really wonderful about this film, for me, is the utilization of the church setting and the profession of Brougham. I think, very often, we're over inundated at Christmas time with two things that couldn't be more opposite if they tried; BUY, BUY, BUY! ME, ME, ME! and "Christmas is about the baby Jesus, magic, and church rules."

I'm a Christian myself, but I have my problems with both of these Holiday mentalities. The Bishop's Wife looks to make a similar critique, that even the most "pious" of men, in this case a Bishop, can end up using the church as an excuse to turn a blind eye to the other things in his life. I wish we'd focus less on consumerism and more on love. I also wish we'd focus less on shoving the nativity story down people's throats to get them to believe in magic and focus more on spreading peace on earth and good will toward men, which is the true theme of the nativity story. Christmas is not, despite what many would lead you to believe, about the toys or about the fact that you should be celebrating the birth of a magic baby, but rather that you should be going out into the world to help those, much like Dudley, with the things they don't know they need help with because they've lost sight of what's important in life. And this is accomplished through peace, love, and good will, which are all the things that little magic baby grew up to represent.

Few films get the message as right on as The Bishop's Wife. Because of it's effectiveness, it makes the list without a hiccup.

7. We're No Angels (1955)

Did you know Humphrey Bogart starred in a Christmas movie? Bet you didn't. And I'll bet you've never seen a Christmas movie that took place in French Guiana have you? Exactly.

We're No Angels is one of Bogey's rare comedies and a great one. The story is simple, three convicts who have escaped from Devil's Island (Bogey, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov) find themselves at a small supplies store owned by a husband and wife. They offer to fix the leaky roof with the ulterior motive of robbing the store that night while the family sleeps and continue on their escape from prison. Of course, they end up falling for the family and don't quite manage to get away as they'd planned.

The film is wonderfully funny and a nice change of pace for the Christmas movie season. Since it takes place in South America the feeling of the season is very different. Of course nothing beats a good ol' fashioned white Christmas, but a South American Christmas can be fun too, especially when these crooks are involved.

The standout for me, however, is Peter Ustinov. It's really bizarre how, despite the film being made in 1955 and possessing a lot of classic comedy sensibilities, Ustinov gives an incredibly modern, subtle, funny performance. It's really quite amazing how he underplays everything rather than, typical for that era, over playing the gags. The result is something you don't see often in classic films period, which is an unconscious foreshadowing to the comedic styles that will become more relevant in the 70's and then again in the modern age. I imagine people, at the time, thought he was acting very strange. As his character he really possessed his body and the space and lived in it the way a lot of these classic actors didn't. Because of this, it elevates the film to a higher standard, in my opinion. If for no other reason, Ustinov is what makes the film worth watching. Of course everyone else is great and the film is funny, but for the sake of film study, watch and observe Ustinov.

6. The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Have you seen the play or the film You Can't Take it With You? This film is an adaptation from a successful Broadway hit by the same authors and of the same name. The Man Who Came to Dinner in many ways is the same basic premise as You Can't Take it With You. One of the central characters is the location itself which acts as a swinging door to the wonderful cast of diverse and quirky characters that reside there. Though where they differ is that You Can't Take it With You is the tale of two families coming together despite their differences. The Man Who Came to Dinner is a bit of a screwball comedy about radio host Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley reprising his original Broadway role) who is, let's not beat around the bush, a selfish, nasty, old curmudgeon who really doesn't mind imposing on the family whose home he's invading.

When Sheridan arrives for dinner at the Stanley's home and slips and falls on their icy steps and breaks his hip, he's holed up in their house to recover. Indefinitely. And what is initially meant to be a short recovery period turns into a permanent residency to the delight of some and to the great dismay of the Stanley's. Sheridan turns their home into a zoo populated with his own guests, including an Octopus and several Penguins (yes), as well as high society types and convicts. And only his right hand woman Maggie Cutler (played wonderfully by Bette Davis in one of her few comedic roles) seems able to keep him in check until she starts falling in love with newspaperman Bert Jefferson and threatens to leave Sheridan's employment. Sheridan begins to show his even truer colors, that he will do anything to get his way, regardless of the feelings and circumstances of those around him.

It's a delightful comedy with a lot of heart, and though Sheridan Whiteside is a wonderfully written, very witty character, you don't feel bad about hating him. He's terribly selfish and careless and manipulative and you'd be glad he broke his hip so long as it didn't mean potentially destroying the lives of those around him.

But as things often turn out, lessons are learned, relationships cracked and mended, and the true meaning of Christmas is discovered. Or is it? The film is not as outright Christmas themed as, say, Miracle on 34th Street or It's a Wonderful Life but the majority of it takes place on both Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. Given that the decorum is Christmas trees, lights, and decorations, the setting greatly affects the mood and the theme of the film, which is, treat people as you'd like to be treated. Abuse your relationships long enough and you'll soon come to realize you've got no one left in your life.

The film is wonderfully light with fast dialogue and great performances all around, with a fun cameo by Jimmy Durante and, one of my favorite characters in the film, Sheridan's fearful nurse Miss Preen (Mary Wickes also reprising her original Broadway role). It offers a great example of the kinds of people we all know who show up during the Holidays with the seeming intent to only make the season a living hell.

5. It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)

It Happened on 5th Avenue is a film that you could probably catch at any point in time during the year on TCM and not feel as if you'd forsaken the 11th Commandment of "Thou Shalt Not Enjoyeth Christmas Movies Out of Season!" However, that could apply to a few of these as well. There's only really ever a handful of classics and modern masterpieces that fit the mold of, "If you put it in your DVD player between the months of January through October your house will burn down."

But the entire film takes place during the winter and culminates in a wonderful Christmas moment and into the new year, so it's appropriate. And given the warmth of the interiors and the cold of the exteriors, it's a great snuggle up and lock yourself in from the frigid air outside movie.

Aloyisius T. McKeever (the impossibly adorable Victor Moore) is a charming and loving man. He believes in helping the helpless, giving back to others, and always keeping an open heart. The only snag in the way for him is that he's homeless. He spends his days living in the homes of the wealthy whom are away for months at a time staying at their vacation homes. Currently he's living in the 5th Avenue New York mansion of the second richest man in the world, Michael J. O'Connor, spends his winter in Florida.

When Mac meets down on his luck G.I. Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) he invites him in to stay. But the two are put in a tough position when O'Connor's daughter Trudy comes home. Though Mac and Jim never drop their facade of the home being theirs, Trudy is privy to their secret and decides to play along as she begins to fall for Jim. She even coaxes both her parents to move back into the home and pretend to be homeless in order to show them just how wonderful Mac and the others are.

Needless to say, there's a lot of heart in this film. It's hard to deny the themes that jump out of the screen and tug at your heartstrings; that everyone deserves a chance, that we should keep our hearts and spirits open to all those around us because you never know who you're going to meet and how they may change your life. It's a film about love, friendship, and family, and one that seeks to show its audience that wealth and good fortune is not represented in monetary possessions, but in the overabundance of love and good will we show to others, especially at Christmastime.

4. The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)

I'm a huge Bob Hope fan. It's kind of hard not to be. To this day there has never been, and I don't think ever will be, a comedian with his sensibilities, wit, timing, and acting chops. Maybe he wasn't necessarily known for some gut wrenching Oscar worthy drama, but comically he is yet to be matched.

Sidney Milburn, aka The Lemon Drop Kid, is a sneaky little swindler. He's a gambler and a cheat. He might not always come out on top, but he's always got a way around having to put in any real work in favor of cheating someone out of the money he needs to get by. But when he makes the mistake of costing mob boss Moose Moran $10,000, he's going to have to pay up. Luckily it's Christmas time, when people's hearts are most open and happy to give to charity. Little do they know The Kid's real intentions with their dough.

Of course it's a comedy and it's got a lot of heart. In fact I think the recent Fred Claus took several plays from the Kid's book. But whereas Fred Claus is a mess, The Lemon Drop kid is one of my all time favorites. It's a simple screwball type comedy where Hope stars opposite Marliyn Maxwell as the beautiful Brainey Baxter. (Love that old school alliteration naming.) Together, the two find the true meaning of giving, not taking, in the spirit of Christmas as they help an "old folks home for old dolls". Hope even dresses up in drag (because why not) in part of the films final antics and it's quite hysterical.

Fun fact, the Christmas song Silver Bells originated in this film. It's very first version is the duet sung by Hope and Maxwell as they stroll the city streets collecting donations for their charity.

Those who love Christmas Vacation for all its Holiday antics will love The Lemon Drop Kid for all the same reasons.

3. Holiday Affair (1949)

Though the following two films take the cake as personal favorites, I will say that I think Holiday Affair is easily the sweetest of these twelve titles.

Connie (Janet Leigh) is a busy widow who's been raising her son on her own since her husband passed not long ago. Though she's being courted by the gentlemanly Carl (Wendall Corey) she isn't truly happy. Not, at least, until she manages to get an unassuming sales clerk at a nearby department store fired. That's Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum), a toy salesman who falls prey to her secret shopper schemes. But as time goes on, Connie realizes she's likely done a more terrible thing than just get Steve fired...she's falling in love with him.

Like I said, the sweetest of the sweet. What's really great about this film is it's not even remotely one sided. It's so perfectly cast that every single character is likable. That may seem like a shaky path to walk down when you're trying to set stakes for the characters, but rather than make them in true conflict with one another they make the conflict internal to the characters, that they must fight against what's holding them back from being with one another.

Connie's six year old son Timmy (Gordon Gebert) is probably the most adorable child that has ever been in film. And thanks to his smart little kid brain, he manages to set things in motion to ensure everyone's happiness. Even Carl, Connie's fiance, is likable. He's in opposition, technically, to Steve who's supposed to be the film's hero. But the writers handle it so beautifully that they give us a perfect example of what it means to be honorable men, which is no easy feat especially when the love of a beautiful woman is at stake.

I think these top three films are perfect for your classic Christmas date night, and this is the one to start with.

2. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

My body fights with who I love more, Myrna Loy or Barbara Stanwyck. As far as classic actresses go, you could throw the book at me with who you find more attractive than Loy and Stanwyck. We know. Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, yeah, yeah. But it's the way these two behave that makes me get all warm and tingly inside. There's something about their voices and screen presence.

That being said, Christmas in Connecticut stars Barbara Stanwyck as food writer Elizabeth Lane. On paper she presents herself to her audience as the perfect country house wife, living on a farm with kids, a loving hubby, and a wonderful kitchen. In reality she's none of those things. She gets all her recipes from Felix, her friend. But when the owner of her paper decides to organize the stay of a sailor, Jefferson Jones (played by Dennis Morgan), at her perfect farm and with her perfect family, she realizes she's got a lot of work to do to keep up appearances in order to please the powers that be.

Of course, a delightful comedy of errors ensues with Liz' faux family and her inevitable attraction to Jones. But she's a married woman! Except not really. I'm sure you know how it ends, but that's not what matters, Christmas flicks tend to all end the same. This is the most prime example of classic Christmas films you probably haven't seen. It's always on Television at some point during the Holiday season, and you've probably even left it on in the background, but it's time to sit and finally enjoy it.

A lot of the romance between Stanwyck and Morgan is both funny and sweet and feels very genuine and it's hard not to fall for both of them. The farm house the film takes place in is a beautiful set and a lot of the backdrops are gorgeous as well. The scene in which the two take a little romantic sleigh ride is particularly memorable. And it would have taken the cake for the #1 spot, except for the fact that it doesn't star...

1. The Shop Around The Corner (1940)

Jimmy Stewart!

Considering he's my all time favorite actor, what did you expect to take the cake? If you've seen You've Got Mail, then you know the premise, which has been told and retold many times over the years. Shop Around the Corner is, in fact, an adaption of the original Hungarian play Illatszertár (Or Parfumerie) by Miklós László.

Alfred Kralik (Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) are pen pals in love with one another despite not knowing who they really are outside of their anonymous relationship, and they'd probably take issue because in reality the two, both working as sales clerks at Matuschek's gift shop, can't stand one another.

They're surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast of cute co-workers, like fellow clerk Mr. Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) and errand boy Pepi Katona (William Tracy). But the unsung hero of the story is Mr. Matuschek himself (Frank Morgan) who ties everyone together and, though he faces some tough times, is the face of the Christmas spirit within the film.

It's the films I love the most that I don't like to say the most about primarily because I want you to watch it for yourself. It's very accessible, so there's no excuse. I got the disc from Netflix. But it's a really nice, refreshing example of how such a simple story can touch your heart without the frills and fervor of typical seasonal flicks and especially of all the Oscar fare in the theaters that can either be too heavy handed, or just too heavy in general.

Stewart and Sullivan are a great pairing, plus it doesn't hurt that he's the most charming man the movies ever knew and very relateable to the modern man. And if you want to have a good, little happy cry this Holiday season that restores your faith in love, relationships, and mankind, then this is the film to watch.

So that's all folks! Now go grab a blanket, a few mugs of cocoa, a little peppermint schnapps, and get cozy with your sweetheart. It's Christmas after all, so why not spend some time together watching some great films. If you feel like I missed your favorite, leave it in the comments below!

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