By Alan Hurst
The Editorial Team at Foote and Friends on Film have been asked to come up with their top five holiday-themed films before Christmas. As I started to pull my list together (hoping that it wouldn’t overlap too much with some of the other lists), I was challenged in getting my choices down to just five. And an even bigger challenge was trying to move beyond films released during the 1940s, the heyday of Christmas movies from Hollywood. There is something very comforting and magical about several Christmas themed films released during and after World War II that keep me coming back year after year. My final list includes three from the forties, one from 1954 (but it’s early scenes are set in the forties) and one from the 1971 (but set in the depression). In ascending order, here are my choices:
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
After multiple viewings, director Henry Koster’s The Bishop’s Wife has quietly found its place as my favourite movie of the holiday season and I’m not entirely sure why. I’m guessing it’s due to a lot of different elements subtly combing to produce a movie that (for me) really defines the word “charming”. The Bishop’s Wife tells the story of a Bishop (David Niven) and his frustrations in funding a new cathedral. He’s challenged in working with one of the donors (a wonderful Gladys Cooper), he is neglecting his wife (Loretta Young) and daughter, and the house staff are all skittish around him. Enter Cary Grant as Dudley the Angel who comes to help guide the Bishop (who does not like or trust Dudley) and those around him. There are strong messages of faith, civility, generosity, community, and entitlement worked into the witty and low-key script (which had uncredited contributions from Billy Wilder). There is a nice, warm and vintage look to the film, both in the exteriors and in the home of the Bishop. The film is set in a city, but it has a very small-town feel – everyone seems to know everyone and the restaurants and shops all feel local, even though they look like they could be just off Fifth Avenue. Koster and his writer’s have also fashioned several individual scenes that stay with you: Grant decorating the family’s Christmas tree in a matter of seconds, Grant magically gathering boys together for a choir, and a skating scene where Grant, Young and their cab driver (a perfect James Gleason) become spectacular skaters. This film also features a wonderful group of actors. I was never a huge Loretta Young fan, but in this movie she wins me over. She’s has a luminous presence here and she underplays perfectly, nicely matching Cary Grant’s performance. Grant’s is a tough role – he must be charming (easy for him) and funny (also easy for him), but he also must walk a bit of a balancing act with Young’s character – you know there’s an attraction, but it can only go so far. Niven also does well, but it’s a thankless role – the character doesn’t have a lot of humour and he spends most of the film agitated and preoccupied until Dudley works his magic. Rounding out the cast are a wonderful group of character actors from the era – James Gleason, Gladys Cooper, Monty Woolley and Elsa Lanchester.
Remember the Night (1940)
An unsung gem from writer Preston Sturges and director Mitchell Leisen that is now finding it’s place at the pinnacle of holiday films, thanks to Turner Classic Movies and a DVD release a few years ago. It was a hit and reasonably well reviewed when it came out in 1940 but was quickly overshadowed by other Sturges classics that he both wrote and directed such as The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). For me Remember the Night is one of his best stories and a near perfect balance of comedy, drama, idealism and bitterness. Barbara Stanwyck stars as a woman who’s caught shoplifting and faces spending Christmas in jail, thanks to the DA (Fred MacMurray) getting the trial pushed to after the holidays in the hopes of getting a jury not so filled with the holiday spirit. MacMurray starts feeling guilty, so he gets her out on bail with the promise of driving her to see her family in Indiana as he heads home to see his. But when they get to her mother’s place it becomes very clear that this cold, bitter woman has never had any use or love for her daughter, so MacMurray invites Stanwyck home to spend Christmas with his family. To this point the film has shifted from lightweight comedy to bleak reality – the scene in Stanwyck’s hometown is like a slap in the face. But then very quickly we’re at the most beautiful farm house you can imagine, with snow on the ground, cookies in the oven and MacMurray’s mother (Beulah Bondi) and maiden Aunt (Elizabeth Patterson) there to greet them. They both welcome Stanwyck into their home with open arms, no questions asked. For the first time she sees what a true home and unconditional love feels like and, of course, she and MacMurray start to fall in love. This entire section of the film is idealized beyond belief, but it’s also wonderful to experience through Stanwyck’s eyes before the inevitable trip back to New York and the reality of her situation. Director Leisen balances the changes in tone beautifully and he’s fortunate to have a truly perfect cast to work with. Both Stanwyck and MacMurray give two of their finest, most gentle performances. Bondi and Patterson are also a delight and I think they’ll remind a lot of people of their own mothers, grandmothers or aunts – their lighthearted bickering and contradicting of each other is very comical, but also endearing. You know these are two characters who would be lost without each other. I’m glad this film is finally more accessible – I have been talking about it for years after a viewing it on TV and now, thanks to the DVD, each year I’m able to make more converts.
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
A Warner Brothers comedy starring Bette Davis. Not the usual combination of elements during Davis’ heyday at the studio, but it unquestionably worked in this 1942 adaptation of the successful play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. In classic screwball fashion, it tells the story of Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley), an acerbic and egotistical radio star, who injures himself while on a speaking tour and becomes the nightmarish houseguest of a family in Ohio. Relegated to a wheelchair while he recovers during the run up to Christmas, he wreaks comical havoc on the household, the family, his friends and his assistant (Davis). Director William Keighley keeps the film moving at a near breakneck pace as the character of Whiteside continues with his business and personal affairs with no concern for anyone else. The backdrop of Christmas only adds to the fun in The Man Who Came to Dinner and allows for some hilarious scenes of gifts arriving from all over the world for Whiteside (penguins being among them). Again, there is also a nice small-town feel to the film, particularly when Keighley takes the action outside of the house. There’s a beautiful skating scene with Davis and her beau that culminates around a bonfire. The writers have assembled a wild cast of characters (some based on real celebrities of the era), all spinning around the manipulative Whiteside, perfectly played by Woolley. Standouts include Ann Sheridan as a flamboyant, vain actress; Jimmy Durante as a hyperactive comedian; Mary Wickes as the patient’s abused nurse; and Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell as the harried homeowners. Surprisingly, Bette Davis is the most subtle of the group in a nicely scaled down performance. This is definitely worth watching during the holidays – Whiteside makes even the worst houseguest look good by comparison.
The Homecoming (1971)
I’m jumping ahead to a TV movie from the early seventies that served as the basis for the TV series The Waltons (1972-81) based on the works of Earl Hamner, Jr. The Homecoming aired during the 1971-72 season and its impact was such that the TV series was inevitable. But it also stands on its own as an essential holiday film. Patricia Neal stars as Olivia Walton, mother to seven children, whose husband is away working. He’s supposed to be home for Christmas but bad weather, slippery roads and the report of a bus going off the road has everyone on edge. It’s set in the early years of the Great Depression and director Fielder Cook establishes that to the point that the time period itself feels like another character. It’s the source of all stress for each of the characters and the actions they take. The script is primarily a series of vignettes, but with the underlying focus of the nerve-wracking wait for dad to get home. The action shifts from decorating the tree to the general store to a missionary handing out used toys to a pair of old ladies ladling out moonshine whiskey. In a short 90 minutes, we get a warm-hearted glimpse into a group of people doing what they can to celebrate Christmas during incredibly tough times. Patricia Neal is very good as the mother, warm-hearted but stern. Other standouts include Richard Thomas as John Boy, Cleavon Little as a preacher, and Ellen Corby and Edgar Bergen as the grandparents.
White Christmas (1954)
One of the big ones. It was a major hit in 1954 and it has been a staple on TV every year since the late sixties. Although the story is just a little far fetched, it’s all undeniably fun and one of the most colorful and musically rich celebrations of Christmas around. It opens on Christmas Eve 1944 near a battleground during World War II, where we get to hear Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas” almost immediately. Very quickly we are watching the civilian Crosby and his new partner (Danny Kaye) achieve success in clubs, on stage and on the radio after the war. Through a bit of musical comedy silliness, they hook up with a sister act (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) and end up in Vermont where they decide to put on a Christmas show to help their former General (Dean Jagger) turn his dream of a Vermont Inn into a success. There are some misunderstandings along the way, but nothing to hinder the ultimately happy ending complete with snow, a Broadway-style revue, and a full cast reprise of “White Christmas”. Director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Mildred Pierce) keeps the action moving and leverages Irving Berlin’s song catalogue for some perfect (and some bizarre) production numbers. Highlights are “Sisters” featuring the two ladies, the very funny reprise of the same song featuring Crosby and Kaye, Kaye and Vera-Ellen’s wonderful footwork during “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing”, “Count Your Blessings” sung by Crosby and Clooney by a roaring fire and, of course, the title tune. The bizarre includes Kaye’s number “Choreography”. I’m not sure how that ever made sense to anyone. Another (non-musical) highlight for me is the incomparable Mary Wickes as the General’s maid. Always a welcome addition to any film or TV show, White Christmas gave Wickes one of her most substantial roles and she’s perfect as the caustic, funny, behind the scenes commander at the inn.
Just missing the list for me are Love Finds Any Hardy (1938), the best of the Andy Hardy series and set during the 1938 Christmas season; Holiday Inn (1942), a vintage musical with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire set during multiple holidays; and, of course, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), a dark but near perfect holiday movie. In terms of more recent fare, I definitely have time for A Christmas Story (1983) and – with no guilt – Love Actually (2003).
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.