Who doesn’t like a good Christmas movie? If you look among the classics, you will find stories of romance, sprightly musicals, dramas of human error and redemption, fantastic tales of Santa and his elves, and family movies with happy resolutions.
As someone who thinks in terms of vintage films, my list of favorites is rich in American and British titles from the past eighty years.
It’s a Wonderful Life, from 1946, where George Bailey, played by James Stewart, a beloved family man and important member of his community, gives up on life until an angel named Clarence, an unskilled spirit who is struggling to earn his wings, shows George the value of his existence. This film is a must for holiday viewing—a deeply honest, inspired movie by populist filmmaker Frank Capra.
In The Bishop’s Wife, from 1947 with Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven, Grant plays an angel with seemingly magic powers sent from heaven to save the marriage and career of a well-meaning but sometimes clueless Episcopal bishop.
Musicals such as Holiday Inn, White Christmas, The Bells of St. Mary’s and Going My Way, and Meet Me in St. Louis… all are Christmas treats.
There are so many versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, from 1908, 1910, 1938, 1951, and the musical Scrooge with Albert Finney from 1970, as well as others, including animations. I agree with many of my friends that the 1951 film with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge is the most compelling of the productions.
A good friend asked me if I was going to see Remember the Night from 1940, with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. No, I’ll skip that film because it has several scenes that show the sadness and meanness of life. It’s a terrific film with a powerhouse of a script and it certainly has a Christmas theme, but I don’t want to fill the season with a story that features misery. The scene between Stanwyck’s character’s mother is so off-putting, and I have a low tolerance for thoughts of prison cells, so I reject seeing Remember the Night as a holiday entertainment. The Scrooge films also feature scenes of malicious behavior and shameful misery, but they are fantasies. There’s a difference.
Three films also are on my list of must-see holiday movies. Love Actually from 2003 shows us so much about the highs and lows of life, specifically of love and loss. It’s a London-based comedy-drama by Richard Curtis. With stars such as Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, and Keira Knightley, the blend of several interesting stories just flows. I want to make special mention of Bill Nighy’s performance as Billy Mack, an aging rock star looking for a holiday hit. He’s a comic standout, even among such eminent company.
One Special Night with Julie Andrews and James Garner from 1999 is meant for middle-aged and older viewers. Two strangers are trapped in a cozy cabin during a blizzard. Late-life romance results!
Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 film, The Shop Around the Corner, knocks me out every time I see it. The story revolves around an atypical romance between clerks, James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, in a European shop. Maybe because I grew up in my parents’ store in Amsterdam, maybe because the film was written by my mentor Samson Raphaelson, this movie is among my favorite films for any month of the year. I laugh, I cry. I feel the warmth of true romance. It offers a perfect blend of feelings for the holiday season!
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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