By John DiLeo, Special for USDR
Join me in expanding our perception of what constitutes a Christmas movie. I ask It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas to move over and make some room for the following films. They may hardly scream “Christmas movie,” but they do provide us with some of the more memorable, affecting, and surprising Christmas moments from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Destination Tokyo (1943) – This WWII submarine movie uses Christmas for its festive pre-warfare prologue. The on-board celebration is a perfect distraction, with the cook dressed as Santa and handing out gifts and preparing a feast, while others sing carols throughout the sub. It’s an affirmation of what they’re fighting for and yearning to return to, as they venture farther from home. Cary Grant is the unlikely captain, but can you imagine better company?
O. Henry’s Full House (1952) – This uneven anthology is comprised of five short films, each adapted from an O. Henry story. The closer is “The Gift of the Magi,” one of the author’s more beloved creations. Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger are the young and struggling (and very attractive) married couple expecting a baby. The immediate crisis is what to buy the other for Christmas, and the charming and bittersweet results are not to be forgotten.
Desk Set (1957) – Not one of the top pairings of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, but it’s still a delight, a humans vs. machines comedy in which efficiency expert Tracy brings an enormous computer into Hepburn’s workplace, her impeccably run research/reference department at a broadcasting company. As they spar peerlessly, the film’s highlight may be the office Christmas party, especially memorable when a tipsy Hepburn sings “Night and Day.”
Since You Went Away (1944) – Hollywood’s home-front epic, a three-hour stateside WWII drama starring elegant Claudette Colbert, with Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple as her teenage daughters. This sentimental and morale-boosting piece of Americana climaxes at Christmas, with a holiday miracle, a joyous phone call from a missing-in-action character, a happy ending for a tear-jerking film that also addresses wartime’s heartbreaking losses and sacrifices.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) – A lovely, unforced adaptation of the revered Betty Smith novel; this is a beautifully cast and tenderly rendered family drama. The atmospheric tenement setting is enhanced by the poignant performances of Peggy Ann Garner, as the girl at its center, and an Oscar-winning James Dunn as her alcoholic, pipe-dreaming father. There’s a simple yet deeply effective Christmas Eve sequence, which includes free Christmas trees to anyone who can literally catch a tossed one.
The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) – One of the most moving of war films, G.I. Joe is also a gritty, realistic tribute to the infantry soldier, putting you in the grind of war as few films have. Robert Mitchum became a star as the strong, thoughtful captain leading his men through Italy. Huddled in a damp cave on a rainy Christmas, his soldiers fantasize about a turkey dinner. Through Mitchum’s intervention, they actually get a turkey-filled pot, wine, and cigars, while Bob Hope proclaims “Happy Holidays” on their radio.
The Night of the Hunter (1955) – Mitchum’s greatest performance came in this terrifying thriller about a psycho “preacher” bent on finding the ten thousand dollars hidden by his stepchildren. Set in a Depression-era Midwest, the film becomes a harrowing chase, but this dark fairy tale finds its angel in the great silent star Lillian Gish (as the children’s eventual protector and Mitchum’s unexpectedly formidable adversary). It ends on a snowy Christmas, after peace is restored. As simple gifts are exchanged in a warm, safe setting, the scene becomes one of the screen’s most touching evocations of a true appreciation of hearth and home.
In the Good Old Summertime (1949) – That’s an odd title for a movie more Christmas-y than summery. A musical remake of the 1940 romantic classic The Shop Around the Corner (the one about in-love pen pals who despise each other by day at their mutual workplace), it stars the glorious Judy Garland, ably assisted by Van Johnson. The Christmas trimmings peak with Garland’s ballad “Merry Christmas.” It’s not exactly “Have Yourself a…” but it gets the job done nicely.
Battleground (1949) – A tough yet sensitive WWII movie set in the woods of Bastogne, mostly buried in snow and fog, Battleground has an otherworldly black-and-white atmosphere, sometimes stark, sometimes smoky. The fine ensemble cast, led by Van Johnson and Ricardo Montalban, certainly gets a white Christmas, plus a tree decorated with a lady mannequin’s bare leg, and Christmas cards (released from German planes) with greetings encouraging surrender.
The Thin Man (1934) – A dazzling case of style over substance, this treasure continues to define screen chemistry in the form of the agelessly enchanting William Powell and Myrna Loy as sleuthing Nick and Nora Charles. Though fairly ordinary and forgettable as a murder mystery, the film is a singular celebration of marriage (and alcohol) as pure fun. And it’s surprisingly disrespectful of Christmas, with Powell shooting the balloons off their tree, and with the holiday used as an excuse for yet another cocktail party.
John DiLeo is the author of five books about classic movies, including And You Thought You Knew Classic Movies! and Screen Savers: 40 Remarkable Movies Awaiting Rediscovery.