Now More than Ever: Making Merry with Classic Holiday Films

Since so many of us will be spending a great deal of time at home during this holiday season (unlike any other), I feel almost duty-bound to steer you toward some holiday classics, including some that may have escaped your attention. (That is, unless you’re consumed by the glut of more recent Hallmark holiday fare).

One streaming service that has its fair share of holiday classics is our ol’ friend, YouTube. The classics library has grown in the last few years, so you can find films there for free that you might ordinarily have to pay to rent. (There are “rental” classics available, but I’m sticking to the free offerings.) For instance, you can see the 1951 “Scrooge,” starring the incomparable Alastair Sim as the definitive Scrooge in the best version of “A Christmas Carol,” with either the original black and white version or the “colorized” version available (but please don’t tell me you watched it in color). “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945),which rarely gets enough play on cablecan also be found here, and though it’s not technically a Christmas movie, it’s both amusing and heartwarming, with fine performances from Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman—and Henry Travers as a Scrooge-lite (and a far cry from his Clarence the Angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (also sublime, ‘nuff said). There is also a charming Christmas pageant where Crosby’s Father O’Malley says he “wouldn’t change a word.” You’ll feel the same way. If you missed Laurel and Hardy (and the great Henry Brandon as the gleefully wicked Mr. Barnaby) in “Babes in Toyland” on TCM, you can also see a good print on YouTube (though TCM is showing it again later this month); the Rankin/Bass classics “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” can also be seen here in pristine versions. If you’re hankering for a good Christmas noir, you may want to give “Christmas Holiday” (1944) a try. It stars Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly as newlyweds, and while Durbin gets to sing a few numbers, it’s a melancholy tale of an ill-fated love set against the backdrop of a Christmas holiday. And no, Mr. Kelly does not dance. If you want a bonafide romantic tearjerker with Christmas as a backdrop (in the final scenes), you may want to see the 1939 “Love Affair” starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne. It never fails to move me, no matter how many times I’ve seen it.

If you have Turner Classic Movies and you’re a classic Christmas movie fan, it seems that the network is being extra-sensitive to our “feel-good” needs—even including some rarely shown offerings. TCM is including several delightful holiday staples in its week-long Christmas marathon, such as “Christmas in Connecticut,” “The Bishop’s Wife,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and “The Shop Around the Corner” (all of which are personal favorites and essential viewing, especially if you’re fans of graceful, amusing, heartwarming holiday fare). “The Man Who Came to Dinner” (1941)  is a fast-paced comedy with a Christmas setting and fine performances from Ann Sheridan, Monty Woolley, Reginald Gardiner and Bette Davis (an atypical role for her—but she really wanted to do the film).There is also the exquisite 1940 “Remember the Night” starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurray. She’s a shoplifter on trial, he’s a prosecutor, and for various reasons he takes her home to Indiana to meet his folks during Christmas vacation. It’s a beautifully played, poignant romance with an ending that may surprise you. It has become part of the TCM Christmas repertoire in the past few years, and I’m delighted it is. There are other holiday romances on TCM’s schedule, including “Desk Set” (1957) with Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Blondell—and a computer named Emerac, and “Holiday Affair” (1949) with war widow Janet Leigh having to decide between suitors Wendell Corey and Robert Mitchum (guess who she chooses?).  It’s a lovely film, with Mitchum and Corey both sympathetic and displaying the requisite light touch—and it also features the appealing Gordon Gebert as Leigh’s young son.

Besides these romances, there are the films that contain some traces of black comedy and even dark crimes. “Lady on a Train”–no, not “The Lady on the Train”—stars Deanna Durbin as a young lady who thinks she sees a murder out her train window (come to think of it, “The Lady on the Train” had a similar idea). It has some songs, some mystery—and the great Dan Duryea. “We’re No Angels” is an underrated 1955 Christmas comedy with Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray as escaped Devil’s Island convicts who save Christmas for the befuddled shopkeeper Leo G. Carroll and his wife Joan Bennett. Also on the TCM slate is a rare, late-night showing of “The Silent Partner” (1978), starring Elliott Gould as a reserved bank teller who gets into a deadly game of cat and mouse with bank robber Christopher Plummer. If you like nicely plotted, satisfying thrillers (apart from some excessive violence), you cannot go wrong. It’s a must-see. Finally, I was going to mention “The Cheaters” (1945) earlier for YouTube—but TCM will be (finally) showing what I hope will be a pristine copy on December 23. It stars the great Joseph Schildkraut as a broken-down actor who is taken in by a well-to do but selfish family (among them Eugene Palette and Billie Burke) for Christmas—and how he helps the family (and himself) achieve redemption. It has both humor and sentiment to spare, and a fine monologue for Schildkraut enacting a certain section of “A Christmas Carol.” See it by all means, especially on December 23 for its TCM broadcast. 

Of course, in terms of other personal favorites, I must include “Love Actually” (usually on HBO, though I believe it’s on AMC this year), “A Christmas Story” (usually on TNT and TBS) “Holiday Inn,” “White Christmas” and “Miracle on 34th Street” (all of which normally appear on AMC—albeit with many commercial breaks, alas. Note: “Miracle on 34th Street” is currently not on the AMC schedule.) In any case, there is much to see, and perhaps with the extra time, you’ll re-acquaint yourself with an old favorite, or treat yourself to something you haven’t seen. 

Till we meet again, have a healthy and safe holiday.