By Craig Leask
Like a lot of people, Christmas is and has always been a special time of year for me and nothing gets me more into the spirit of the season then settling down in front of some of my favorite Christmas movies. Several my favorites, as you will soon read, were not initially intended for the Christmas market, but due to the timing of the story or references to the holidays, they have become all out Christmas classics to be revisited and enjoyed year after year.
What particularly makes Christmas movies so special is that, under all the drama, the heartache and the personal journeys infused into the stories, there is a resounding message of hope, community support and unconditional love. These movies contain a message that serves as a welcome reminder of what is truly good and important in life, especially during the daily conflicts and stresses of today’s world. My favorite movies are that – simply because they emphasise moments of calm situations where neighbours do love and support each other, families and friends surmount all barriers to be together and children believe in the magic of Santa Claus.
Although it is hard to narrow down my selection from the plethora of movies, cartoons and variety specials which have been made over the years, in no particular order, these are my not-to-be-missed holiday favourites.
It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)
It Happened on 5th Avenue is one of those little gems that reappeared after having slipped into obscurity for several decades. This was due to a series of unfortunate events which ultimately led to the film being shelved as part of a larger catalogue of films, finally disappearing completely from broadcast and circulation. Finally, on Nov 11, 2008, Warner Home Video released the film on DVD, and in 2009, Turner Classic Movies aired the film for the first time on its network, which was when I was first introduced to this treasure.
The movie is the story of a wealthy miser, Michael J. O’Connor (Charlie Ruggles), who, by happenstance, finds himself surrounded by a group of less fortunate individuals in his own 5th Avenue mansion. From this group he learns the values that are truly important in life. Sound familiar?
This version of the tale, however, has a sweet angle. In this case a lovable, eccentric hobo by the name of Aloysius T. McKeever (played brilliantly by Victor Moore) makes his home by breaking into vacant mansions. He invites himself into the seasonally closed Manhattan mansion of Michael J. O’Connor (the “second richest man in the world”) while O’Connor is wintering at his home in Virginia. During a walk through Central Park, McKeever stumbles on a recently displaced G.I. Vet Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) and invites him to share “his” home. Jim soon comes across several of his homeless war buddies and their families, inviting them to join the pair in the mansion. This group of interlopers is eventually completed by the mansion’s real owner Michael J. O’Connor, his estranged wife Mary (Ann Harding) and their 18-year-old, run away daughter Trudy (Gale Storm), who, due to a charming plot development, are posing as homeless vagabonds. By the end of the film all residents of the mansion know the true identity of the O’Connor’s, save for McKeever, ensuring the movie maintains its innocence, while never allowing the story to become too sugary or preachy.
Although the plot synopsis is far from original, what director Roy Del Ruth has created is a simple film using the very real shortage of housing and employment faced by ex-G.I.’s as the basis of the story. He treats this element and the eventual enlightenment of O’Connor with a sensitivity and light humored approach, while renewing and showcasing the generosity of the human spirit and the strength of mutual support.
It Happened on 5th Avenue was nominated for the Best Writing – Original Story Oscar but lost to another Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street. The late 1940’s was a good time for movie making. This was the period immediately following the end of WWII when, for the first time in decades, there was cautious optimism in the air and this new attitude was reflected beautifully in the movies.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
I could not complete my list of Christmas favorites without including those classic Christmas cartoons which were so important to the Christmas experience and shown only once a year. As a child, I can remember perusing the TV Guide early each December to ensure I didn’t miss them. Out of the list, I would be excited to see any of them (save for The Little Drummer Boy (1968) which I still find a little on the dark side). Some of my go to specials: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966); Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), and Frosty the Snowman (1969), but my all-time favorite was A Charlie Brown Christmas.
From the opening scenes to the jazzy Vince Guaraldi score of background music and the iconic song “Christmas Time is Here”, you cannot watch this show without being happy. Just hearing the music still brings a smile to my face. The animation may seem a little flat and juvenile compared to some of the other cartoons developed in the same decade, but that again is part of the films overall charm.
The storyline is somewhat adult for its time, delving into questions of rampant commercialism surrounding the holidays and the message of community at the show’s finale when the group of neighbourhood kids take that scrawny little tree and decorate it into a masterpiece in support of Charlie Brown. But in the end, it is Linus who delivers the plot turning speech, quoting Luke 2:8:14 from The Bible and expressing in his own way what Christmas really means. It’s wonderfully and simply recited and clearly outlines the things that really matter in our lives.
Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
For a classic “Hallmark Card” approach to a Christmas movie, Christmas In Connecticut delivers in spades. It’s an endearing film directed by Peter Godfrey which details a simpler time when life’s crisis were not life threatening and could be easily resolved by developing a simple scam with your friends, all in the name of saving your job and reputation.
The plot centres around Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), a popular magazine contributor who bases her articles on diarizing her ideal life in the country. This includes detailed visions of her Connecticut farm, her model husband and new baby and the succulent recipes she creates for her family’s dinners. The problem is that this is all a ruse.
For starters, she has no farm, no husband or child and she cannot cook, populating her articles with recipes provided from Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall) who owns the restaurant below her New York high-rise apartment. All goes well, until her publisher Alexander Yardley (Sidney Greenstreet) decides she is hosting Christmas dinner at her Connecticut farm as a publicity stunt for the magazine. The catch – Yardley and a returning War Vet, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), will be attending the holiday week-end festivities. What follows is a charming romantic comedy built around the cast supporting Stanwyck in creating the fictitious life she had showcased in her articles.
Christmas In Connecticut is a true classic, light in its approach and never taking itself too seriously. From today’s hectic and stressful world, Christmas in Connecticut is one of those beautiful movies which, thanks to the Warner Brothers art direction department, looks like something lifted out of a Currier and Ives painting. It’s a treat to revisit the “good old days” of a more serene and innocent era which only live on in the movies.
The Lemmon Drop Kid (1951)
The Lemon Drop Kid is a classic Bob Hope film which I’m including on my Christmas list partially due to the time of the year in which the movie is set and because of its introduction of the classic Christmas song “Silver Bells”, performed by Bob Hope and co-star Marilyn Maxwell. However, The Lemon Drop Kid is mainly on my list because it’s one of those seasonal films I tend to gravitate to, although over the years it has been over shadowed by more traditional Christmas favorites like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), White Christmas (1954), The Bishops Wife (1948) and A Christmas Carol (1951). I still revisit all of them, but I also like finding new or forgotten movies to add to our library.
The premise of The Lemon Drop Kid is fairly straight forward. Hope is Sidney Milburn, aka The Lemon Drop Kid, so named because of his penchant for consuming the small yellow candies. He is pretty much a schmuck, operating as a bookie who is not against scheming and swindling trustworthy individuals out of their hard-earned cash to stay one step ahead of the gangsters to whom he is in debt. One of “The Kid’s” schemes is to exploit the Christmas spirit by organizing a group of unsavory individuals to pose as street corner Santas, collecting donations for a non-existent charity, which he then plans to pocket. When caught by the police and charged with fraud, he decides to create a real charity to appear legitimate, with the same plan to profit.
To fulfill his need for a charity The Kid invents the “Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls”, inspired by a kindly neighborhood resident, (Jane Darwell) who has been denied a bed in a retirement home due to her incarcerated spouse’s criminal past. Throughout the course of the film The Kid does eventually come to terms with his indiscretions and tries to make amends. Unfortunately, this act of absolution comes a little late as gangsters have moved in and, realizing the potential for profits, have kidnapped The Kids elderly charges. Mayhem typical of a Hope movie ensues with Hope posing as an elderly resident, police chases, shoot outs with gangster thugs, narrow escapes and the requisite happy ending.
As a side note, Bing Crosby, Hope’s sidekick in his many “Road” films, recorded and had a hit with the Bob Hope introduced “Silver Bells”, recording it with Carole Richards numerous times.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
This is the well-known and often recreated film (1947, 1957, 1973 and 1994) about a tender older gentleman claiming to be Santa Claus who is declared mentally incompetent and defended in court. But Miracle on 34th Street is much more than that. It is a movie about what is truly important, even when one’s beliefs are being re-examined. It’s about believing in faith and in not giving up on childhood fantasies.
Author Valentine Davies developed the script after fighting his way through crowds of Christmas shoppers wondering what the real Santa Claus would think of the craziness and the commercialism. The theme of the movie surrounds Doris and her daughter Susie not believing in the childlike fantasies that surround the magic of Christmas, particularly the fantasies that involve Santa Claus. Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) wants desperately to make both Doris and Susie believe, despite his troubling legal battle. Throughout the film people – namely Susie – begin to witness small events that gradually get them to question their own beliefs.
What adds to the realism of the film is the locational shots – both in the actual Macy’s department store as well as scenes filmed at the 1946 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. For the parade scenes, 20th Century Fox placed cameras throughout the parade route to capture the event as well as to film the integral components surrounding Kris Kringle’s introduction, which they only had one opportunity to capture with retakes being out of the question.
The movie tested several boundaries at the time – the main character Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) is a divorced single mother with an executive position at Macy’s New York Flagship store. The movie also takes a very intelligent look at raising children, greedy businessmen and the reality of courtroom politics all leading up to that nick-of-time happy ending, allowing Kris to get released in time for Christmas.
Merry Christmas All!
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.