Christmas Movies: Watching Modern Holiday Classics

Guest contributor Victoria Balloon writes:

Watching certain films can be a cherished holiday tradition. The problem is that after the tenth time, you already know that the angel gets his wings, the kid gets the BB gun, and it snows. For some modern classics that create a festive mood without whopping you over the head with a Yule log, consider these films that take place during the holiday season but aren’t specifically about the holidays.

Christmas Movies: Moonstruck The holidays put an emphasis on family, but not all families look like a Norman Rockwell painting. If yours is less like the Cleavers and more like the Sopranos, consider Moonstruck (1987). Loretta Castorini (Cher) decides to marry again, but in trying to amend the bad blood between fiancé Johnny Camarerri (Danny Aiello) and his brother, finds herself falling in love with Danny’s brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage). A full moon has the whole family rekindling old flames and bringing to light some new ones. Norman Jewison directed this homage to opera and Brooklyn; Cher and Olympia Dukakis both won the Academy Awards for their roles.

The politics of family gatherings take on new meaning when kingdoms are at stake; The Lion in Winter (1968), with Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn portraying the complicated relationship between England’s Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, shows that dysfunctional families are a holiday tradition dating as far back as the Middle Ages. The chemistry of the cast snaps, and they fling writer James Goldman’s lines at each other like gleaming knives. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won three; it also features Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton in their first film roles.

If laughter through tears is your favorite emotion, Steel Magnolias (1989) delivers both. A tribute to genteel but strong Southern women, the close-knit friends at Truvy’s Beauty Parlor celebrate marriage and rely on one another through illness as the film focuses on the relationship between M’Lynn Eatenton (Sally Field) and her daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts). Dolly Parton is a delight as “glamour technician” Truvy, Daryl Hannah is almost unrecognizable as frumpy Annelle, while elegant Olympia Dukakis finds a perfect soul-mate in a grouchy Shirley MacLaine.

Family is also where you find it and what you make of it. Rosalind Russell, in the role she made famous on Broadway, plays the eponymous Auntie Mame (1958) who exposes her orphaned nephew Patrick Dennis (Jan Handzlik, then Roger Smith) to the best of New York’s bohemian culture in a series of vignettes across the years that show how family means love and acceptance—no matter how crazy you are. The play is based on a memoir by Dennis, and the screenplay is by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who also collaborated on hits On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain. Russell so loved the line “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” that she used it as the title of her autobiography.

Christmas Movies: Gremlins

A Christmas Movie Classic: Gremlins

The yuletide spirit can go from heartwarming to horrifying if you eat the wrong thing too late at night, which is what happens in Gremlins (1984). Billy Peltzer’s (Zach Galligan) early Christmas present of an ancient Chinese “mogwai” proves to be more of a high-maintenance pet than it first appears. When cuddly Gizmo gets wet, he multiplies! When his offspring eat after midnight, they become evil gremlins hell-bent on tearing up the town! Bing Crosby’s rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” has never been so creepy.

If you missed watching The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) for Halloween, don’t miss it now! Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon), the bored Pumpkin King, wants to deliver Christmas for a change, but it’s difficult to explain to the citizens of Halloween Town just what Christmas is. Despite the best of intentions, Jack’s Christmas becomes, well, a nightmare only Santa Claus can set right—but the evil Ooogie Boogie (Ken Page) has other plans for Santa!

Tim Burton’s film departs from the saccharine childhood classics of stop-motion animation to deliver the creepy spirit of Christmas in a sick but fun way; Jack’s singing voice and the film’s score are by Danny Elfman.

Also by Burton is Edward Scissorhands (1990). Kind-hearted cosmetics saleswoman Peg (Dianne Wiest) knocks on the door of an old gothic house and finds Edward (Johnny Depp), a boy with scissors for hands. Nosey neighbors have a hard time accepting Edward’s shy, artistic spirit, while Peg’s daughter Kim (Wynona Ryder) struggles with peer pressure and Edward’s romantic intentions. A stylish rendition of 1950s normalcy and repressed desire finding expression in larger-than-life coiffures, this film also marks the last big screen appearance of horror legend Vincent Price.

If you’re not quite finished with Halloween, then take a look at some slightly spooky holiday fare. Bell, Book and Candle (1958) is a chic Hollywood version of the Greenwich Village beat scene gone supernatural. Witch Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak) never expects to fall in love when she steals away the fiancé (Jimmy Stewart) of a catty former schoolmate—only problem is that witches can’t fall in love! The film features Jack Lemmon as Gillian’s brother playing some crazy bongos and comedian Ernie Kovacs in one of his few big screen roles. Love Gillian’s minimalist metal Christmas tree!

Christmas Movies: Rocky

Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire (Rocky 1976)

What? Rocky (1976) is a holiday romance? View writer Sylvester Stallone’s breakout film in a brand-new light. Everything The Italian Stallion (Stallone) does he does for boxing or for love of Adrian (Talia Shire); in the end when the match is over, it’s her he calls out to. Because of the low budget and time constraints, some of the film’s most touching scenes (skating at the ice rink, Rocky’s admission of his doubts the night before the fight) were improvised.

Consider that not all revelations of the heart are flowery—yo! (Okay, maybe it is a stretch, but it’s a lot easier to follow than Love, Actually (2003), with more action scenes.)

Too often holiday romances are revoltingly sweet or leave us especially jaded. If you’re feeling particularly cynical about love, begin with The Apartment (1960). Despite the fact that C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a rat climbing the corporate-ladder by lending out his apartment for extramarital affairs, and Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) is a hopeless romantic who needs the stuffing shaken out of her, director Billy Wilder’s script has you caring about them both as they tangle themselves in infidelity and broken promises. Even through the last 15 minutes of the film you can’t be sure if this will end well or badly. If you only know Fred MacMurray from My Three Sons or The Absent-Minded Professor, you’re in for a real shock.

When Harry Met Sally (1989), ending with a big New Year’s Eve kiss, gives even the most cynical hope, or at least a laugh, as it shows how love can develop with someone we once couldn’t stand. Harry Burns’ (Billy Crystal) advice (“…for your own good, put your name in your books right now before they get mixed up and you won’t know whose is whose, ’cause someday, believe it or not, you’ll go 15 rounds over who’s gonna get this coffee table.”) is priceless, and Sally Albright’s (Meg Ryan) fake orgasm scene is the stuff of movie legends. “Can men and women really be friends, or does sex get in the way?” might just be the thing to discuss under the mistletoe!

However, if a “Silent Night” with romance and cocoa on the couch sounds like a snore, there are several holiday films with enough action to spike anyone’s eggnog. Nothing makes you glad to be home for the holidays like a disaster on the high seas on New Year’s Eve. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) is a fine example of 1970s epic disasters with an all-star cast. During its last voyage, the SS Poseidon is pushed to its limits and capsized by a tidal wave. The Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman) leads a band of survivors through the upside-down ship toward safety, with heavy losses along the way. The film’s scenes were shot in order, and most of the stunts, including Shelly Winters’ underwater scene, were done by the actors, creating a demanding filmshoot.

The action in Lethal Weapon (1987) starts out so strong you’ll be forgiven for not noticing the Christmas decorations. Aging LAPD detective Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is forced to take on a new partner, suicidal “lethal weapon” Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson). Their investigation of an apparent suicide uncovers a drug-smuggling ring lead by a retired general of Vietnam War Special Forces troops, Peter McAllister (Mitchell Ryan), and his heavy, Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey). No high-tech special effects here, just old-school Hollywood chase scenes and explosions that make this a must-see, love-hate buddy movie.

Even the unflappable James Bond is not immune to the festivities of the season. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) is notable in the series because George Lazenby replaces Sean Connery as James Bond. In this sixth film 007 corners SPECTRE leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas) in a Swiss Alps hideaway and finds himself locked in with10 beautiful allergy sufferers over the holidays. Bond Girl Diana Rigg is no useless sidekick and holds her own. Look for Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous) as one of Blofeld’s “patients.”

The ultimate holiday action film has to be Die Hard (1988). An office Christmas party goes majorly awry when European terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) seize the building, kill the boss, and hold the employees hostage. It’s up to NYPD detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) to find out what they’re up to and foil their plans—all while wearing no shoes. Willis is at his cocky best delivering some memorable lines, while Rickman makes a truly evil feature film debut. Check out McClane’s teddy bear; director John McTiernan used the same bear at the end of The Hunt for Red October.

In the mood for still more holiday films that aren’t holiday films? Trek over to Matinee at the Bijou,where they explore Tinseltown’s take on tinsel by looking at Christmas traditions of the past preserved on celluloid.

There are many more movies like these… feel free to comment on your favorite “not specifically about the holidays” movie.

And now, check out the Christmas connection in the theatrical trailer for Die Hard from 1988:

Victoria Balloon is a writer, classic film enthusiast and pop-culture pundit. In addition to knitting small appliances, Victoria is currently involved in helping to bring back the Matinee At The Bijou TV series in an HD sequel to be hosted by Debbie Reynolds.

Looking for are few good articles on Classic Christmas Movies? Then you might enjoy reading about the movie “Christmas In Connecticut” starring Barbara Stanwyck. If the Christmas In Connecticut article does not satisfy the holiday spirit in you, take a minute and checkout our first ever Christmas Movie Mashup: Some of the best Christmas movie articles we’ve published. And finally let your voice be heard and vote for the “best “Golden Age” holiday movie?

  • Hank Zangara

    The most surprising “Not Really for Christmas” film I know of is “Christmas Holiday” (1944).

    If you were walking down the street of your hometown in the 1940s and saw a glittering movie theater marquee with the title “Christmas Holiday” starring Hollywood song and dance stars Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly, you’d go in expecting it to be a lavish Technicolor musical. Right?

    Well, you couldn’t be more wrong! It’s a dark black-and-white mystery/tearjerker about a soldier who comes home only for Christmas, and then must ship out again to the war front. It’s a great little film, but what a downer!

    Maybe I’m alone on this, but I’m quite amused by the contradiction of casting expectations and what you really get. Fortunately, the movie is good enough that you would not ask for your money back!

  • Susan Bernard

    This is a great list! From “The Lion in Winter” to “Die Hard” to “Auntie Mame” to “Gremlins” to “Moonstruck” and “Lethal Weapon” – they are all movies that I consider a small sub-part of the holiday genre.

    I truly love Auntie Mame. Every year during the holidays I watch it. It is as touching as it is funny.

    I am old enough to have seen Lethal Weapon when it came out at the theater during the holidays and that plus the opening song, “Jingle Bell Rock” and the Christmas Tree-drug buying scene have cemented it in my mind as a sub-holiday movie type.

    The Lion in Winter has just scene-chewing action and the best wry, sarcastic and caustic lines you’ll ever hear hurled at family members during the holiday. But as Ms. Hepburn’s character, Elanor of Aquitane observes, “What family doesn’t have it’s ups and downs?”

  • Barbara Atkinson

    Here’s one we haven’t seen mentioned yet in this discussion…. While only vaguely about the holidays, the Ginger Rogers’ movie “Bachelor Mother” (1939) with David Niven is lots of fun! Single girl ends up with a baby…. “I got it for Christmas!” Romance blooms between store clerk and the big boss, while Baby is an adorable angel throughout. (Just how did they catch that kid doing all the right things? Cinematographer Robert de Grasse was amazing!) A light, breezy Ginger romantic comedy, this is another film to enjoy with a cup of your favorite holiday cheer in hand. All best to you all!

  • Misskitty

    If you like nice and sappy, there’s always one of the several makes of Babes In Toyland (funny, you never see the one with Drew Barrymore listed), and Ernest Saves Christmas. They’re both cheesy, hokey, and endearing…

  • Tom Strother

    What about The Ref? (Denis Leary, Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey)
    The three stars are all superb as a burglar tries to bring peace
    and forgiveness to this wholly dysfunctional family on Christmas

  • Mary

    Bell, Book and Candle is a must see—what a cast!

  • christina west

    Picked up the latest version of the Christmas Carol, Jim Carrey style……very boring.

  • bogart10


  • pmitchell10

    The non-Christmas movie that comes to mind is the one with the most non-Christmas name, THE DEAD, John Huston’s final directorial effort.

    It’s really quite beautiful and takes place during the course of an uneasy Christmas dinner in Dublin, with the prerequisite Joycean stained glass and epiphinous imagery.

    It helps if you are Irish or otherwise like the works of James Joyce. Otherwise, it might be an acquired taste.

  • Curt

    One of my favorites is a film that I just saw again after 25 years, Barry Levinson’s first feature “Diner”. It takes place during the 1959 Christmas season in Baltimore. The movie was a coming-of-age story about a group of friends who are slowly, almost reluctantly, going their own way toward adulthood. It’s a terrific film and offers early performances by an impressive ensemble of performers including Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon and Ellen Barkin. I loved this movie when it first came out and it hasn’t lost a thing over the intervening years. Rourke was never better.

  • bugster2

    Christmas Eve. What a non-Christmas movie!

  • tlynette

    @Tom Strother: I’m hip! “The Ref” is high on the dysfunctional family holiday hit list!

    My personal favorite non-Christmas movie that I have to watch every December is “Stalag 17.” From von Scherbach’s riff (“We so hoped to give you a white Christmas, just like the ones you used to know”) to the barracks Christmas party leading to the escape, the holiday is all over the place — but I guess because it’s about a WWII POW camp, it’s the ideal setting. I don’t know, but it works for me every year! Same goes for “Meet Me in St Louis” — Christmas gets a nod, and a great song comes out of it, but, it’s all about the Smith family, and the approaching World’s Fair. It’s a must-see during the holidays, too.

  • Anne

    Thanks, tlynette, for reminding us of “Meet me in St. Louis” — a great non-Christmas movie if ever there was one. What a tear-jerker “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is. And notice how they have changed the words whenever it is sung these days?

  • Gord

    “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Auntie Mame” – two GREAT non-Christmas movies. Add “In the Good, Old Summertime” (the “Shop Around the Corner” remake) and Judy Garland’s excellent, tho little heard “Merry Christmas” song and you have a fine film trio for holiday season viewing.

  • Victor Brown

    How could you have left out what was possibly the funniest film which was set during the Christmas season: The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), starring possibly the most notorious overgrown kid in the history of film: one Bob Hope. Recall that the story was not only set during the Christmas season. This season was actually part of the plot. Hope masqueraded as a Santa in order to con the public in order to get the money which he owed to a gangster. Then other gangsters picked up on the scam and likewise initiated their own scam in order to fleece the public.