Thursday, December 1, 2011

The 5 Best Christmas Movies

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!

1.  The Bishop's Wife.  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.


2. A Christmas Story.  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).

3. It's a Wonderful Life.  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.

4. White Christmas and Holiday Inn.  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.

5. Christmas in Connecticut.  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 mentionsMiracle on 34th Street; A Christmas Carol (the Alastair Sim version is my favorite); The Shop Around the CornerThe Cheaters (aka The Castaway); Remember the Night (also with Barbara Stanwyck); and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

11 comments:

  1. Haha, putting both Holiday Inn and White Christmas together is a bit of a cheat, but it's nice to see them both on there.

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  2. Rick, this is a wonderful list of Christmas classics that truly touch our hearts. Sometimes just thinking of sitting back with a warm blanket, mug of hot chai or cocoa, and one of these old friends playing again on the television is enough to make one smile. Better yet is making it a reality. In a time fraught with challenges I hope to do so soon. Merry Christmas to all!

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  3. Rick,

    I read this last night just about the same time you were posting some thoughts on my blog. Just now getting a chance to respond. Yours is a great list though admittedly I have not seen THE BISHOP'S WIFE (bad John!). HOLIDAY INN is the only film on yours that made a list I posted a couple of years ago. I did a Top Five traditional favorites and a Top five Alternative Christmas favorites. Among them were "Remember The Night," "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Carol" (1951 Alastair Sims version), "The Lemon Drop Kid," "The Man Who Came to Dinner," "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," "Scrooge" (The Musical) and "It's a Wonderful Life."


    John

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  4. Love your list! Its a Wonderful Like is my favorite and then The Bishop's Wife. Scrooge is up there too but which one? Haha, I like them all. I even like Scrooged! The Christmas Story is growing on me but its not a favorite of mine. Thanks for the list!

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  5. I am definitely liking this list. It captures all the big classics. Check out my holiday movie bucket list on Sobriety Test Movie Reviews at http://bit.ly/t2kVRt

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  6. Though I've been classic movie-blogging since March, this is the first time I have visited your blog. It's wonderful..I am your newest follower.

    I adore 4 of your 5 Christmas movies, and the other one (A Christmas Story) I've never seen. Lots of people talk about that one, though, so maybe this year I should broaden my horizons and watch it.

    Thanks,
    Patti
    (They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To)

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  7. Patti, welcome to the Cafe and thanks for sharing your comments! A CHRISTMAS STORY is a recent classic, but a charming and funny movie.

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  8. I first saw THE BISHOP'S WIFE in the early '80s and was surprised I'd not heard of it before. It quickly became a favorite. My other favorite on your list is CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT, another film I came to later on. If I had a list it would include MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (not strictly a Christmas film, but I watch it every year) and HOLIDAY INN.

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  9. Rick,

    As solid a list as anyone can fathom given it's only five movies. My classic hat is off to you.

    I will add a couple of comments, not sure whether the list is in order of preference. Mine would be "It's a Wonderful Life," a film that, as you mention, is oft taken for granted because it is so ingrained in our consciousness. But it's a wonderful film and features one of Jimmy Syewart's best performances. I'll add, as a personal note, that the film is so full of wonder for me, I watch every year somehow hoping the "what if" of the story lends for a viable alternative to its outcome. Secretly I always wonder if Uncle Billy will remember the string on his finger this time and maybe George gets to travel the world. Just once... HOT DOG!

    Merry Christmas,

    Aurora

    PS - Cary Grant as anybody on film always deserved the girl. Just one of the laws in the movies.

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  10. Great list, Rick. No arguments here!

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  11. A great list and covers all the bases. My own favorite scene from 'A Christmas Story' is when Jean Shepherd himself appears, as the grouchy father in the waiting-for-Santa line (a very human moment) - in fact, the whole meeting-Santa sequence is hilarious! ("you'll shoot your eye out, kid!")

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