What is a ‘classic Christmas film’? Many people ponder this question each year in the run up to the festive season, trying to decide which film is appropriately Christmassy enough to watch surrounded by family, lying on the sofa with a belly full of Christmas dinner.
In recent years films such as Home Alone, Die Hard and Elf have been added to the ever-expanding list of cinematic entertainment that people watch during December. But to simply revisit favourite films from the last 30 years would be missing an opportunity to sample the delights of an earlier era. Many classic Christmas films were made in the 1950s and 1940s.
Set The Tape’s Clara Cook takes a look at five of the best Christmas classics from the wintry past…
It’s a Wonderful Life
Considered one of the most loved films in American cinema and essential Christmas viewing, It’s a Wonderful Life was released in December 1946. Initially it did not perform as expected at the box office and was considered to be a minor flop. Despite this initial hiccup, It’s a Wonderful Life gained a strong following of fans and is considered one of the most critically acclaimed films ever made, with many people including it in their 10 favourite films of all time.
The film tells the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), a man who has given up his dreams and personal desires to help those around him and to care for his family and community. Depressed with how his life has turned out, George decides to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. He is saved by his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and how different his community would be without his support and care. George has to learn that the world is bigger than one man’s desires and to appreciate the good in his life now instead of dreaming of things he never achieved. With its themes of love, family, self-sacrifice and understanding, It’s a Wonderful Life is both entertaining and moralising with a happy ending that warms the cockles on even the coldest of December nights.
Meet Me in St Louis
You would be hard pressed to find a more well-known Christmas song than ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. This bittersweet tune made its first outing in Vincente Minnelli’s musical Meet Me in St Louis in November 1944. The film charts the trials and tribulations of the Smiths, an Edwardian family, over the course of four seasons in their hometown of St Louis as they await the opening of the 1904 World’s Fair.
Starring Judy Garland, Mary Astor and whole host of other famous Hollywood stars, the film is filled with romantic songs, colourful delights and a memorable performance by child actress Margaret O’Brien. The scene in which Garland sings ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ is perhaps one of the saddest scenes of any Christmas film, as main character Esther and her little sister Tootie, faced with the prospect of moving home, gaze out on the snowmen in their back yard. The scene emphasises that change is inevitable, that the present is fleeting and that Christmas can be a time of painful nostalgia as well as an event filled with joy.
Boasting another supremely popular Christmas song, White Christmas is a musical comedy about a successful song-and-dance team of two soldiers who after World War II become romantically involved with a sister act and join forces to save a failing Vermont Inn which just happens to be run by their commanding General. White Christmas stars Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen.
It is a loose remake of the earlier 1942 film, Holiday Inn which also starred Bing Crosby, although the plots differ widely enough to make the later film entertaining in its own right. White Christmas was released in 1954 and was filmed in VistaVision and Technicolor, meaning the quality of the film is a higher resolution than many films released at the time and the colours are more vibrant, which the costume designer took full advantage of by creating a range of colourful dresses for Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen. The film can seem a little twee to a 21st century audience, but it is the perfect mix of light-hearted fun and smooth musical numbers that makes for perfect viewing while digesting a plate of Christmas dinner late into the afternoon.
The Shop Around the Corner
Before there was You’ve Got Mail, a very young James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan were falling in love through written letters in 1940s Budapest. The Shop Around the Corner is a smart and funny film that culminates in truths being revealed and love being discovered on Christmas Eve between two employees at a gift shop. Initially characters Alfred and Klara can barely stand each other, but over the course of the film they slowly fall in love through their correspondence to each other as anonymous pen pals.
Director Ernst Lubitsch drew on his own experiences of working in his father’s small shop in Berlin to make the film, portraying the environment of a small business where the co-workers and employer are a close-knit community. The Shop Around the Corner is currently classed as ‘culturally, historically and aesthetically significant’ by the US Library of Congress and selected by the National Film Registry to be preserved for future generations. So they can watch it at Christmas time presumably!
Christmas in Connecticut
There is no denying Christmas in Connecticut is a film of its time. It definitely does not hold up to the Bechdel test and its rather old-fashioned views regarding a woman’s place in the home feel outdated and at times a bit bewildering. However it is still an amusing screwball comedy about mistaken identity and its glorifying of housewives is due to the fact that it was made in 1945, when men were coming home from war and women were being sent back into the kitchen.
Starring the formidable Barbara Stanwyck as Elizabeth Lane and Dennis Morgan as her love interest, the film tells the story of a successful food journalist who can’t cook and who writes about a fictitious life on a farm in order to successfully publish her column. Her boss has no idea she is a fraud and inadvertently invites himself and a young war hero over to her home for Christmas. Elizabeth knows if the truth comes out about her lies, her career will be over and so decides to fake the perfect Christmas dinner and country life. A painfully bad TV remake of Christmas in Connecticut came out in 1992 starring Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson and was bizarrely directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. When in doubt, pick up a mince pie, stretch out on the sofa and enjoy the original 1945 version filled with opulent Christmas sets, old-fashioned costumes and even a sleigh ride in the snow.