By Alan Hurst
If you’re into Christmas, then you probably have a favourite Christmas movie (mine is 1947’s The Bishop’s Wife) or a favourite Christmas episode from an old sit-com (the 1970 episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show to name one). But Christmas can also pop up in a film that really isn’t about Christmas at all. It can represent the passage of time, it can be in the form of a song, or it may just be a nice way to wrap things in a sentimental bow.
Christmas is definitely not the central element of the plot in the films below, but it does provide a festive jolt to each of these films – either joyous or melancholy. Either way they’re memorable for the feelings they evoke and some wonderful imagery.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
This is probably the best musical of the forties and one of Judy Garland’s signature films. It’s the story of a family from St. Louis in the early part of the last century whose lives thrown into turmoil with the threat of a possible move to New York. Garland plays the family’s second oldest daughter who has a crush on the boy next door. Director Vincente Minnelli anchors each of the film’s major sequences to a season and the darkest part of the film takes place at Christmas as the family – particularly the youngest child played by Margaret O’Brien – struggles with the idea of leaving their home town. This sets the stage for Garland’ s classic rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, which is actually a wistful take on the season, and ends with O’Brien running hysterically into the yard to destroy a bunch of snowmen. Dark stuff, but ultimately very moving and the reason this film has become a staple at Christmas.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Many cite this as their favourite Christmas film. But it actually has very little to do with Christmas until the end when George Bailey (James Stewart) is considering suicide on Christmas Eve but he’s prevented from doing it by Clarence, an Angel sent to help him. The film is George Bailey’s life story from young boy to troubled middle age. It’s a stark, almost trenchant look at the decisions that shape our lives and there is an undercurrent of despair throughout. When Clarence is able to show George the impact that he has had on everyone – essentially giving him a second chance – that’s when the overwhelming spirit of Christmas invades the film. Everyone comes together to help George get out of trouble as he and his family stand by the Christmas tree looking on. It’s impossible not to shed a tear during the film’s final moments because director Frank Capra has built the entire film to this cathartic yuletide emotional release.
Little Women (1949)
There are a few scenes near the beginning of this MGM adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel that present the days before, during and after Christmas as something out of a Currier and Ives print. Yes, the Civil War is underway, the March family patriarch is fighting for the north, and money is a challenge for Marmee (Mary Astor) and her four daughters. But a mid-19th century Christmas never looked more beautiful. It’s all set on a soundstage, which only adds to the antiquated perfection that MGM’s set and costume designers were able to achieve. From the “exterior” snow covered scenes, to the girls peering in the frosted and decorated window of the local General Store, to the March family tree decorated with homemade decorations, no detail is over looked. These initial scenes are so good and so pretty that the rest of the film becomes of bit of slog, with the exception of Elizabeth Taylor’s wickedly funny performance as Amy. But I can watch those first few minutes over and over.
Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954)
Following their introduction in The Egg and I (1947), Ma and Pa Kettle (Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride) were a movie staple from the late forties until the mid fifties. Every 12 months or so moviegoers could depend on another 90-minute adventure with the Washington State hillbillies and their brood of 15 children. In their first solo feature, they won a contest and ended up in a modern home, but they (particularly Pa) were always drawn back to their ramshackle farm house. This 1954 entry pulls them back to the farm to try and clean it up so they can help their son win an agriculture scholarship. Nothing ever goes smoothly for the Kettles, as one of the judges is a nervous hypochondriac completely out of place on the Kettle farm. Things wind up with a wonderful country Christmas celebration that really helps set this film apart from others in the series. The film also features the wonderful Mary Wickes in a supporting role, who also gets to be part of the Christmas festivities at the end of the film.
All That Heaven Allows (1955)
I love this movie. It’s the story of a widow (Jane Wyman) who slowly stumble into a romance with a younger landscaper (Rock Hudson). Their slight age difference (eight years) is a central plot point. Her friends assume she’s attracted to the younger man because of his rugged physique. They also assume he’s a fortune hunter out for her money. Her children don’t approve, she becomes the talk of her upper middle-class social set, and there’s a disastrous party where she tries to introduce him to her friends. She can’t handle the pressure or attention, so she calls it quits. She starts to have second thoughts around Christmas and runs into Hudson at a Christmas tree lot. She drops some very subtle hints that she’s still interested, but then quickly gets out of there when he’s approached by a woman that she mistakenly assumes his is girlfriend (without all of these assumptions this film wouldn’t have a plot). The Christmas trees, some coloured lights and Wyman’s nice handling of the character’s wistful regret is very moving. Of course things ultimately end well, but you have to see this movie just for the refurbished mill that Hudson renovates into a home. With a frozen pond, deer outside the window and snow on the trees it’s a living Christmas card.
The Apartment (1960)
There’s a scene in Billy Wilder’s funny and acerbic look at life in the corporate world that helped give office parties a bad name (of course that may depend entirely on your point of view). It’s Christmas and word gets out that there is a wild company Christmas party underway on the 19th floor. And it is wild: dancing on the desks, tables, drinking, a pseudo strip tease. This is all played out as Shirley MacLaine – an elevator operator at the company and a mistress of one of the executives (Fred MacMurray) – is confronted by the fact that she’s one of a string of mistresses that MacMurray has gone through, and she sees the physical evidence that MacMurray does indeed have a wife and family. Oblivious to all of this is Jack Lemmon, who is doing his best to ingratiate himself with MacLaine. It’s a dark scene and a reminder that the holidays aren’t always as envisioned by Norman Rockwell.
The film and its star – Lucille Ball – were basically tarred and feathered when Mame was released in the spring of 1974. It’s the story of an irrepressible aunt and her nephew and the film started life as a novel, which was adapted into a successful Broadway play and film, both starring Rosalind Russell. It was then adapted again into a Broadway musical starring Angela Lansbury in 1966, and then eight years later Warner Brothers released the film. There are good moments in Mame, particularly when the script veers towards slapstick and Lucy is able to shine. Unfortunately by this point Lucy wasn’t a great singer, but she does have one shining musical moment in the first part of the film. The Great Depression has hit, Mame has lost her money and she can’t keep a job. She comes home to her nephew, his governess, and the butler and she decides they all need a little Christmas to cheer themselves up. Cue the orchestra, the Christmas decorations come out and Ball launches into Jerry Herman’s celebratory “We Need a Little Christmas”. It’s a rousing number and the scene does the trick – we’re all in the Christmas spirit and, for a brief moment, Mame takes flight. It doesn’t last, but it’s a fun and nicely staged few minutes.
Steel Magnolias (1989)
The movie – and the play it’s based on – are both hokey and sentimental, but just try and stop watching once it starts. The film is about friendship and family as it details the relationships of six women: mother and daughter Sally Field and Julia Roberts, hair dresser Dolly Parton, her assistant Daryl Hannah, and long-time friends Shirley MacLaine and Olympia Dukakis. The cast saves this movie, particularly Field, Parton, MacLaine and Dukakis. They all work beautifully together, sparking both laughter and tears. At a Christmas party at Field’s home she learns her daughter is pregnant, and the pregnancy will put her daughter’s life at risk. The house is filled with tacky decorations and equally tacky people, but these ladies all do their best amid the tinsel and eggnog to buoy to the spirits of Field and demonstrate the foundation and meaning of friendship.
Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001)
Early in the film Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) and Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), once childhood acquaintances, are awkwardly re-introduced at a Christmas party at Bridget’s parents. She’s wearing a very tacky jumper and he’s wearing an equally tacky Christmas sweater. As the festivities are going on around them, the conversation becomes strained, she makes a fool of herself, they insult each other, and go their separate ways. Their parents were hoping for a matchmaking success, but that takes a little more time. The fun part of this scene is the familiarity of strained socializing during the holidays – the food, the sweets, the mixing of friends and family, and the awkwardness of being single when everyone feels it’s their mission to correct that.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
Definitely not a Christmas movie, but the scenes of Hogwarts at Christmas are magical: the exterior shots of the snow falling, the festive inspired musical arrangements on the soundtrack, Hagrid dragging a snow-covered tree across the yard, the ghostly carolers wandering the halls, beautifully decorated trees in the main hall, and Harry realizing that he actually has presents to open. Very soon we’re back to the mysterious world of wizards and witches, but for a few minutes we’re treated an almost Dickensian image of Christmas.
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.