Classic Christmas – a diverse collection of classic festive movies.
THE HOLLY AND THE IVY (1952)
Based on a stage play by Wynyard Browne, The Holly and the Ivy revolves around local parson Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson), and his adult children (Celia Johnson, Denholm Elliott and Margaret Leighton) and two elder sisters as they reunite in post-war Norfolk for the traditional family Christmas. The family’s dysfunctionality is apparent from the outset as each child brings their issues to the table. But, one thing they do share is resentment of Martin, who appears to care more about his parishioners than his family.
Director George More O’Ferrall keeps locations tight while maintaining the story’s theatrical roots. Here the family unit faces a range of problems, from caring for an elderly parent to alcoholism and grief, cramming the narrative with social issues that occasionally feel too dark for a festive celebration. However, despite its surface darkness, The Holly and the Ivy is a genuinely heartwarming Christmas delight as each family member realises that their judgement of Martin may have been wrong.
CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945)
Festive romantic comedies don’t come much better than Christmas In Connecticut, a classic story of deception, love and pretence directed by Peter Godfrey. Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) is an unmarried food writer from New York who writes articles under a fictitious persona. Homemakers adore Elizabeth for her apparent idyllic lifestyle with her husband and their newborn baby on a Connecticut farm. However, the trouble is it’s all a sham! Trouble soon comes knocking when her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) – unaware of the fraud – asks her to host a Christmas party for a returning war hero, with Elizabeth borrowing the neighbour’s baby and enlisting her chef uncle (S.Z Sakall) to keep up the pretence.
The film joyously delves into the ridiculous. Elizabeth cannot do the most basic household chores, allowing for moments of sublime situational comedy, while the screwball comedy elevates the absurdity of the plot to new heights as gender roles are swapped, and a returning war hero becomes a childminder.
BEYOND TOMORROW (1940)
Christmas movies are often associated with the fantasy genre due to the magical stories they tell. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a prime example; however, Beyond Tomorrow is a long-forgotten forerunner of Capra’s classic. Here Three rich old men, George, Allan and Michael (Harry Carey, C. Aubrey Smith and Charles Winninger), recruit their Christmas dinner guests by randomly throwing three wallets on the street holding their addresses and some money. Whoever brings them back is welcome to dinner, which is how Jean (Jean Parker) and James (Richard Carlson) meet. The film’s final message plays with themes similar to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in both tone and structure, and despite a slightly preachy finale, it’s a fascinating pre-curser to many of the festive films that were to come.
THE BISHOPS WIFE (1947)
Following in the footsteps of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Henry Koster’s The Bishop’s Wife is another example of a classic Christmas miracle fantasy film. Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) is attempting to raise funds for a new cathedral in town. However, his obsession is all-encompassing, leading him to neglect his wife, Julia (Loretta Young) and daughter (Karolyn Grimes). While Henry prays for guidance, he suddenly finds his prayers answered by an angel, Dudley (Cary Grant). But the heavenly Dudley only reveals his true identity to Henry while charming everyone else around him, much to Henry’s annoyance. To add to the confusion, Dudley also finds himself strongly attracted to Julia; yep, that’s right, the angel has the hots for the Bishop’s Wife!
Rumour has it that Niven was cast as Dudley and Grant as Henry; their roles switched at the last minute. If true, it is possibly the best thing to have happened to Koster’s film. Many knew Cary Grant for his debonair leading roles in Hitchcock’s suspense dramas. But these sophisticated roles were also complemented by his brilliant comic timing in screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). Here the role of Dudley allows The Bishop’s Wife to mix his two on-screen personas into a perfectly balanced performance. The result is a sophisticated and intrinsically funny performance that celebrates Grant’s range and on-screen magnetism.
COVER UP (1949)
Cover Up is certainly not a light-hearted Christmas outing; here, we have a murder mystery noir in a small Midwestern town during the Christmas holidays, a B-film take on Wilder’s classic Double Indemnity. Insurance agent Sam Donovan (Dennis O’Keefe) is investigating the apparent suicide of a client. But while the evidence clearly points toward murder, the townsfolk wholeheartedly believe it to be suicide. The Capra-esque portrayal of a small post-war town is a nice touch, elevating the movie’s festive mood despite its murderous content. Meanwhile, the romantic subplot works quite well in counteracting the darkness. However, while exciting, the finale is also questionable. Cover Up is a strange tinsel-wrapped package of classic film noir.
3 GODFATHERS (1948)
The Western is rarely associated with the Christmas genre, but with 3 Godfathers, John Ford dovetails the classic Christmas tale with the oppressive heat of Arizona. The story is based on the 1913 novelette by Peter B. Kyne with the three wise men transplanted into the wild west. Here, three rustlers, Robert (John Wayne), William (Harry Carey Jr.) and Pedro (Pedro Armendáriz), flee into the desert after robbing a bank only to find themselves helping a woman in labour. However, when the woman dies, she asks the men to protect her newborn boy and carry him to the safety of New Jerusalem. The three rugged cowboys have no idea how to care for the newborn in a story that takes Biblical scripture and merges it with a classic Western-style comedy.
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944)
Vincente Minnelli’s classic musical is an odd Christmas film in that, apart from including one of the most famous festive songs ever written, the plot doesn’t revolve around Christmas. Yet, there is no denying its overall warmth and atmosphere. Told through a series of vignettes depicting each season, the successes and hardships of the middle-class Smith family include disagreements between mum and dad (Leon Ames and Mary Astor) as Rose (Lucille Bremer) and Esther (Judy Garland) search for love. Meet Me in St. Louis would merge a selection of short stories published in The New Yorker by Sally Benson into a majestic and vibrant musical gem. But make no mistake; this is Judy Garland’s film – her voice and performance are truly incredible as she makes a series of musical numbers her own, from “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to the delightful “The Trolley Song.” It’s no wonder Meet Me in St. Louis is now celebrated as one of the finest musicals ever made and a must-see feel-good festive gem.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940)
One of the most distinctively Hungarian films from the classic Hollywood era, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner is not only based on Miklós László’s play Parfumerie but takes place and was filmed on location in Budapest. The plot revolves around a leather goods shop, explicitly focusing on salesman Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and the newly hired Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). The Shop Around the Corner provides the perfect basis for a classic screwball comedy as it becomes clear that Kralik and Novak can’t stand each other. Yet they have also been anonymously exchanging letters, with both falling for their secret pen-pal.
One of the greatest achievements of Lubitsch’s film is its ability to merge the classic Christmas movie template with a realistic focus on human connectivity. Lubitsch takes the central conflict of the screwball comedy and laces it with a genuinely funny, moving and emotional film demonstrating the complexities of our human interactions, perceptions and judgements. While James Stewart’s name is associated with the ultimate Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life – Lubitsch’s film is just as charming. Just look at the numerous adaptations it inspired, from Robert Z. Leonard’s musical In the Good Old Summertime (1949) to Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998) and Kadhal Kottai’s Tamil-language remake in 1996. But it is Lubitsch’s original film that remains a timeless classic.
BLAST OF SILENCE (1961)
Allen Baron’s superb slice of neo-noir is quite possibly one of the darkest and bleakest films of all time. So why, I hear you ask, is it included in our Christmas Classics? Despite its bleak landscape, the movie’s unconventional perspective on the festive season makes Blast of Silence a hidden Christmas gem. Baron’s film follows several days in the life of a New York hitman, Frankie Bono (Allen Baron), as he sets out to kill a mobster called Troiano over the Christmas holidays. From this description, you may be expecting an action-packed crime thriller filled to the brim with violence and shootouts; however, in reality, Blast of Silence plays out as an existential drama. Rather than focusing on the assassination, Baron’s movie portrays the inscape of an antisocial hitman as he aimlessly wanders through the festive glow of New York City, unable to connect with anyone.
Baron’s film is a stunning example of modernist filmmaking; its refreshingly bold visual style is embedded in the authentic location shots of New York City. Meanwhile, its narrative approach focuses on the main character’s psyche rather than the events surrounding him as we enter his closed and isolated world. When combined, these traits place Blast of Silence among the forerunners of French New Wave cinema while inspiring many of the gritty New York thrillers of the 1970s.