By John DiLeo, Special for USDR
It’s striking that our beloved holiday movies were made predominantly in the 1940s. Hollywood still churns out Christmas movies every year, but the perennial favorites continue to be the golden oldies. Let’s revisit some of these chestnuts, plus some surprises, including the final two, neither yet available on DVD. Consider their inclusion my “Dear Santa” plea for my Christmas stocking.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – Does anyone not believe that Edmund Gwenn, in his Oscar-winning role, is really Kris Kringle? He’s so gentle, joyful, and strong that he’s just got to be the one and only! Hired as Macy’s store Santa, he tries to lighten the lives of Maureen O’Hara, his firmly realistic boss, and Natalie Wood, O’Hara’s precociously jaded second-grader. Wood is an adorable, skillful young actress, slowly warming to Gwenn’s charms. Miracle remains fresh because, amid the laughs and the message (“Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to”), there’s a balancing dose of cynicism, seen in store business, city politics, and the justice system. But it’s Santa who triumphs, delivering an unforgettable Christmas morning surprise.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – The emotional power of Frank Capra’s classic derives from the darkness it explores before finding the light. James Stewart, no longer the juvenile of the 1930s and early 1940s, reveals his uncompromising ability to expose complex, sometimes unattractive, human impulses. Though we cherish the film’s enveloping warmth, its lovable (and wingless) angel, and its life-affirming resolution, it’s Stewart’s restless dissatisfaction, stewing resentments, and near-suicidal collapse that give the film its timeless impact. All this plus Donna Reed’s simple radiance and the understatedly sexy chemistry she shares with Stewart.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940) – Before its remakes—the musical In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and the email romance You’ve Got Mail (1998)—there stood this peerless original. Set in a Budapest leather-goods store, it’s an irresistible romantic comedy about warring co-workers, James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, who don’t know that they are also passionate pen pals. Both stars are utterly captivating as they make their way toward love. In a warm-up for Wonderful Life, Stewart does piercingly honest work as a frustrated, trapped young man. Because this film, like Wonderful Life, deals with insecurity, loneliness, and fear, it fully earns its happy ending. The touching, rapturous finale, on a snowy Christmas Eve, is enormously satisfying.
The Bishop’s Wife (1947) – In this likeable bit of starry-eyed whimsy, Cary Grant is Dudley, an angel visiting earth to assist harried bishop David Niven. Niven’s wife is the enchanting Loretta Young, and the film avoids becoming cloying because of the subtly sexy triangle that develops. The seasoned restraint of this mega-wattage star trio is the chief appeal of this genuine smile-inducer, though Grant is somewhat constrained by his necessarily heavenly composure. His Dudley is quite an ice skater, and no one can trim a Christmas tree as efficiently or as magically as he can.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) – A glorious peak for the MGM musical, this beautifully crafted Vincente Minnelli film celebrates hearth and home with depth and nuance. Set in 1903 and 1904, it’s a colorful, virtually plotless piece of Americana, composed of assorted episodes in a family’s life. It’s delicate and emotionally resonant in ways that few musicals are, primarily in the breakout performance of Judy Garland, here staking her claim as queen of the genre. Whether yearning for “The Boy Next Door,” bursting with “The Trolley Song,” or comforting little-sister moppet Margaret O’Brien during “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Garland is a luminous, affecting presence.
Holiday Inn (1942) – It is, after all, the movie in which Bing Crosby introduced the Oscar-winning “White Christmas.” Teaming Crosby for the first time with Fred Astaire (their follow-up was 1946’s Blue Skies), Holiday Inn is best when its Irving Berlin score takes center stage and worst when its witless story line becomes a tiresome love triangle. Crosby leaves the showbiz rat race to open a Connecticut inn that will operate only on holidays, complete with floor shows. The highlight is Astaire’s Fourth of July firecracker dance; the low point is Crosby’s black face number for Lincoln’s birthday. Blandly cheerful Marjorie Reynolds is the love interest, singing with Bing and dancing with Fred.
White Christmas (1954) – Intended as a Crosby-Astaire reunion, this mega-hit features Danny Kaye in Astaire’s shoes. Practically a Holiday Inn remake—though this time the inn is in Vermont—White Christmas has a similarly tedious script, including junior-high romantic complications. Yet, once again, it’s Irving Berlin’s show. Crosby and Kaye, as a famous musical-comedy team, stage a show to save the inn owned by their old army general. There’s no black face this time, but there is a tacky, overproduced minstrel number for the defiantly politically incorrect. Unattractive and overlong, White Christmas has its moments: Crosby and Kaye performing “Sisters” in drag; Vera-Ellen’s sensational dancing; and Rosemary Clooney’s throaty vocals. It’s all so squeaky clean that when the ladies are offered drinks, Clooney asks for lemonade and Vera-Ellen requests a malted. Not even an egg nog?
Stalag 17 (1953) – Here’s an unexpected choice, a WWII movie about American P.O.W.s in Germany. It’s really two movies: a terrific mystery about a barracks informer, and a lame-brained comedy. Thank goodness the taut thrills trump the labored jokes. Stalag 17 is anchored by William Holden’s razor-sharp, caustically funny Oscar-winning performance as a cynical operator who trades with his captors. Holden is mostly seen black-eyed, courtesy of those inmates who suspect he’s their betrayer. On Christmas Day, during the men’s makeshift holiday bash, comes the knockout climax in which Holden exposes the real rat. The bitter opportunist becomes the Christmas savior.
Remember the Night (1940) – This virtually unknown Christmas love story stars Barbara Stanwyck as a hard-boiled shoplifter and Fred MacMurray as her prosecuting attorney. He sympathetically pays her bail and, after finding out they’re both Hoosiers, offers to take her home for the holidays, eventually winding up at his family’s place. The film rests on the poignant and unsentimental transitions in Stanwyck’s performance as she lets down her guard and absorbs the kindness and hospitality of MacMurray and his family, leading to an inconvenient romance between the stars. Written by the great Preston Sturges and directed by the underrated Mitchell Leisen, Remember the Night is a beauty.
Bachelor Mother (1939) – This comedy sleeper features the funniest, most delightful New Year’s Eve on film. Ginger Rogers, as a department-store clerk, becomes romantically linked with boss David Niven. He (and everyone else) believes she’s an unwed mother, though she really did find her baby on a doorstep! Rogers is at her wisecracking best, and Niven, by contrast, offers witty sophistication. The film’s centerpiece is the ritzy New Year’s Eve party to which Niven brings Rogers. To ease her discomfort at so posh an affair, he introduces her as a non-English-speaking Swede, leading to a hilarious, triumphant prank in which the two stars improvise a priceless mock-Swedish. Rogers effortfully manages one English phrase: “Oppee Noo Cheer.”
John DiLeo is the author of five books about classic movies, including Screen Savers: 40 Remarkable Movies Awaiting Rediscovery and Screen Savers II: My Grab Bag of Classic Movies.