With the holiday season upon us, it only seems appropriate to do a Yuletide version of “The Five Best” series. Between 1938 and 2000 alone, there were over 100 movies centered around Christmas and I’m not even counting films with Christmas scenes such as The Bells of St. Mary’s and Meet Me in St. Louis. Picking out a Top 5 was not an easy task and I fully expect to receive some comments on omissions and the rationale for my picks. But, as I’ve said previously, there’s nothing like a good movie discussion!
When I first saw this film on TV in the 1970s, it was not the annual holiday favorite that it is today. Its stature has grown exponentially since then and it’s typically listed among the best films of all three of its stars: Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven. Aside from its magical moments (e.g., the angel Dudley’s visit with the professor, the ice skating scene, etc.), what I admire most about The Bishop’s Wife is Grant’s performance. For once, despite his looks and charm, he doesn’t get the girl. Furthermore, Dudley becomes jealous and, in one scene, perhaps a little petty. In the hands of a less gifted actor, this often human-like angel could have posed a problem. But Grant provides all the required character shading and still keeps Dudley likable. That was one of his greatest gifts as a performer.
Jean Shepherd’s nostalgic, affectionate childhood memories–centered around his Christmas wish for a Red Ryder BB rifle–come to life in this perfect family film. It’s a funny comedy, to be sure, but it’s the little family scenes that make this one special (e.g., when Mom has Randy play “piggy in the trough” to finish his dinner). This deft blend of warmth, humor, and the spirit of childhood is tough to capture on film. Jean Shepherd and director Bob Clark tried again with a 1994 sequel called It Runs in the Family, which featured a different cast. Despite some amusing scenes, it lacks that special spark. (If you can find it, a better sequel is the TV-movie Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss, which also features Ralphie’s family).
Repeated showings on television may have diminished its impact for many people…but I still remember its emotional wallop when I first saw Frank Capra‘s holiday classic. Certainly, except for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, no Christmas tale has maintained such an enduring appeal and influenced popular culture. Hey, even Dallas did an episode in which J.R. Ewing was shown what would have happened to others if he had never existed. While there is much to admire in It’s a Wonderful Life, what always draws me to the film is James Stewart in his first great post-World War II performance.
OK, I’m cheating by listing two films in one slot, but it’s hard to separate these two Bing Crosby musicals that featured his biggest hit song. When I was young, I preferred Holiday Inn because it wasn’t shown frequently on television and contained a rare Crosby-Astaire pairing. As a adult, my preference shifted solidly to White Christmas. Its detractors harp about the flimsy plot, but with such an incredible cast and Irving Berlin’s songs, who cares? Danny Kaye is at the top of his game and has probably his best dance number with “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” with the underrated Vera-Ellen. Plus, Bing duets with Rosemary Clooney (who never sounded better) on “Count Your Blessings.” It’s worth mentioning that versatile Michael Curtiz directed–the one who helmed Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and many other memorable movies.
Barbara Stanwyck so excelled playing “bad girls” in classics like Double Indemnity that her comedic skills are sometimes overlooked. She is simply marvelous in this fine example of a “snowball comedy” in which a simple situation quickly gets out of control. In Christmas in Connecticut, Ms. Stanwyck plays a food and style critic for a popular magazine–the only problem being she has no actual experience. When she’s required to play the part, she convinces friends to help out pull off the deception, to include getting a fake husband and baby. The supporting cast includes scene-stealing character actors such as Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, and Una O’Connor.
Honorable mentions: Miracle on 34th Street; A Christmas Carol (the Alastair Sim version is my favorite); The Shop Around the Corner; The Cheaters (aka The Castaway); Remember the Night (also with Barbara Stanwyck); and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Do you agree with Rick’s choices? What are your favorite Yuletide films? Let us know in the comments!
Have you ever wondered why It’s a Wonderful Life is so wonderful? Ask Movie Irv!