We are all familiar with Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life and even Die Hard as the perfect films to relax to after opening your presents and eating a delicious roast dinner. However, in this list, we are going to explore five lesser-known Christmas themed movie classics from five different genres – melodrama, comedy, fantasy, noir and the western.
The Holly and the Ivy (1952)
Director: George More O’Ferrall
Based on a stage play by British playwright Wynyard Browne, The Holly and the Ivy revolves around local parson Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson). His adult children (Celia Johnson, Denholm Elliott and Margaret Leighton) and two elder sisters, reuniting in post-war Norfolk for the traditional family Christmas. With the family’s dysfunctionality apparent as each child brings their own personal issues to the table. But, one thing they share is a resentment of Martin, who they all feel cares more about his parishioners than his family.
In taking the story from stage to screen, director George More O’Ferrall keeps locations tight, while maintaining its theatrical roots. With the family unit facing a range of problems from caring for an elderly parent to alcoholism and bereavement. In fact, for a film with a relatively short runtime, its crammed with social issues that may seem too dark for its festive context. However, despite its deep underlying social themes, The Holly and the Ivy is a truly heartwarming Christmas delight. With each character realising that their judgement of Martin may have been wrong, his love and care for them hidden under the surface. And while the finale might wrap things up a little too quickly, The Holly and the Ivy is firmly rooted in the concept of the family Christmas miracle. Making it a classic British Christmas film.
Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Director: Peter Godfrey
Festive romantic comedies don’t come much better than Christmas In Connecticut. Revolving around classic themes of deception and pretence, Peter Godfrey’s movie offers a delightful situation comedy. With Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck); an unmarried food writer from New York, making her living writing articles under a fictitious persona.
Homemakers adore Elizabeth for her apparent idyllic life, with her husband and their newborn baby on a Connecticut farm. However, trouble arises when her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) – unaware of the sham – asks her to host a Christmas party for a returning war hero. A situation that leads Elizabeth to marry her friend who owns a farm, “borrow” the neighbour’s baby and enlist her chef uncle (S.Z Sakall) to keep up the pretence.
The film joyously delves into the ridiculous, a trait that only adds to its charm. With Elizabeth unable to do the most basic chores around the house, in turn allowing for moments of sublime situational comedy. However, thankfully the film only uses this as a source of humour; never descending into 1940s moral commentary on the role of single women and the need for a man. Its Screwball comedy roots elevating the absurdity of the plot to new heights, as gender roles are swapped, and a returning war hero becomes a childminder.
The cast is undoubtedly great, yet also highly unusual. After all, here, Stanwyck’s Double Indemnity femme fatale is replaced by a performance of comedy gold. While at the same time, Sydney Greenstreet, one of Warner Brothers’ great villains becomes a magazine mogul baffled by the chaotic events unfolding. However, the film owes a great debt to its side characters; Una O’Connor as the cranky housemaid and S.Z. Sakall as the endearingly funny uncle. In a film that manages to be both funny and festive, while simultaneously mocking the idea of the perfect Christmas romance.
Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
Director: A. Edward Sutherland
Christmas movies are often associated with the fantasy genre, mainly due to magical stories often indelibly linked to Dickens. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a prime example of this classic template, however Beyond Tomorrow; a forerunner of Capra’s classic is possibly the least known film on this list. Its B-movie origins of fast shooting schedules and small budgets leading to a creative movie, void of studio interference.
Three rich old men, George, Allan and Michael (Harry Carey, C. Aubrey Smith and Charles Winninger) come up with the idea of ‘recruiting’ Christmas dinner guests by randomly throwing three wallets on the street with their address and some money. Whoever brings them back are welcome to dinner, which is how Jean (Jean Parker) and James (Richard Carlson) meet. In a film that switches focus from the older men and their Christmas games to the blossoming romance of a random meeting. Before taking a sombre turn in its third act.
Given the short description above, the three-act structure of individual stories may seem too convoluted for the film’s runtime; in a narrative that could easily have been three separate films. However, the disparate stories are held together by a tragic plot twist involving the three older men. The result of which sees them come back as ghosts intent on guiding Jean and James’ life. The film’s final message, playing with Charles Dicken’s classic A Christmas Carol in both tone and structure. And while the plot does not revolve around Christmas all the way through. The festive sentiment of love, care and giving, is present throughout.
Unfortunately, Beyond Tomorrow also falls into the trap of becoming moralistic and preachy by the end. Its woes only added too by one of the most underwhelming shootout scenes in cinema history. But, despite these weaknesses and it’s over-sentimentality, it is worth a watch for both its visual effects, technical creativity and difference to any studio outing of the time.
Cover Up (1949)
Director: Alfred E. Green
A lighthearted, festive family film, Cover Up is not. Instead, we have a murder mystery noir that takes place in a small Midwestern town during the Christmas holidays; something even the producers felt might be unsuitable for a Christmas outing. But, thankfully the film’s star, Dennis O’Keefe (who co-wrote the script as Jonathan Rix) resisted any proposed changes to the movie and its festive location.
Cover Up is undoubtedly a B-film take on Wilder’s Double Indemnity, as insurance agent Sam Donovan (Dennis O’Keefe) investigates the apparent suicide of a client. The evidence clearly pointing to murder, despite the townsfolk wholeheartedly believing it was suicide. However, here, the two people connected to the murder: Phillips, the victim and Dr Gerrow, the owner of the murder weapon, are never actually seen on screen. The unusual set up only adding extra suspense to the film’s opening, while at the same time, sadly robbing the audience of the full emotional weight of the revelations to come.
The Capra-esque portrayal of a small post-war town is a nice touch; also working to elevate the festive mood. While at the same time, the romantic subplot works quite well in counteracting the darkness. However, its the final revelation that is both exciting, yet also questionable. With the film’s conclusion of secrets and community control wrapped in a strange tinsel laced parcel. However, apart from this, the film remains relatively light and laid back compared to the darkest examples of the genre. It’s unusual set up of festivity and murder fascinating in construct.
3 Godfathers (1948)
Director: John Ford
The Western is rarely associated with Christmas. However, with 3 Godfathers, John Ford managed to dovetail Christmas with the heat of Arizona. In a story based on the 1913 novelette by Peter B. Kyne. The classic Three Wise Men of biblical storytelling, 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 within a covered wagon. However, as the woman takes her final breath, she asks the men to protect her newborn boy and carry him to the safety of New Jerusalem.
3 Godfathers never shies away from the usual western genre tropes, but, also manages to combine these with moments of comedy and sentimentality. The three tough cowboys, both inexperienced and unsure of how to best care for the newborn. While at the same time, the Biblical allegory works well in this unusual context; if at times too clear in its religious subtext. For example, a scene in which our cowboys come across a Bible, before realizing that their plight is the same as the Three Wise Men. Clearly, the allegory would have worked equally well without making a meta-level declaration of this similarity. Meanwhile, given the western locations, there is only so much the film can do to create a sense of Christmas.
The story of the Three Wise Men has proven to be timeless in film, with numerous films looking to reinvent the story within modern situations and contexts. Including two silent versions of The Three Godfathers from 1916, and John Ford’s first attempt Marked Men (1919). While at the same time, William Wyler’s first all-talking film Hell’s Heroes (1930) played with similar themes. More recently, Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers (2003) used the same source material, taking away its western aspect but keeping the festive Christmas setting.