Two of my all-time favorite things in the world are old movies and Christmas. So when the two intersect, my heart squeals and jumps up and gives my brain a great big kiss!
It’s time to stop watching those Hallmark Channel movies and gather the family ’round the big screen hearth and settle in for some truly delightful holiday movies.
By now everyone knows about It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Carol. You’ve probably seen them dozens of times, and if you haven’t Lord knows it’s your own doing and you’re clearly soulless and lacking in taste so perhaps the following recommendations – and Christmas itself — aren’t for you.
But if you are in possession of a soul, a sense of humor and a shrewd sensitivity, I guarantee you will likely enjoy the following classics:
The Shop Around the Corner (1939)
One of my all-time favorites, this movie is far superior to the (and I use the term loosely) remake, You’ve Got Mail. This is because the original is a charming jewel of a movie with Jimmy Stewart, a great ensemble cast, and without Meg Ryan. Jimmy works in a sweet little Old World boutique where the clerks are capable of making music boxes diet aids and a wallet sound like the most romantic gift ever. Margaret Sullivan plays the shop’s new Diane Chambers-ish clerk and she and Jimmy are unaware that each is the other’s beloved pen pal. The story has all kinds of other complications – adultery, mistaken identity, attempted suicide – but it all culminates on a snowy Christmas Eve when are tender protagonists finally get together.
Frankly, Margaret Sullivan is just as annoying as Meg Ryan in this, but to be fair it’s to do with her character and not any Meg Ryan-ness. I also remind myself that Margaret must have really had it going on off-screen since she married handsome and discerning men like Henry Fonda, William Wyler and Leyland Hayward. (A young Jimmy Stewart had been young Henry Fonda’s roommate and is said to have had a big crush on his friend’s wife.)
It’s an incredibly romantic movie, and though the charming setting helps, James Stewart is doing most of the heavy lifting. His breathless line readings, his besotted gaze, his unique blend of “Aw shucks” innocence and just-under-the-surface sexual potency make him the ideal romantic hero. It’s hard to pull off being wistful without looking wimpy and Stewart makes his character believably strong, fragile and smitten all at the same time. He’s going to touch on this blend again in The Philadelphia Story and It’s a Wonderful Life, but as Christmas movies go, The Shop Around the Corner is a lovely snow globe of sweet, sweet awesomeness. Watch it uninterrupted, curled up with some hot cocoa or cider to make the spell complete.
Remember the Night (1940)
While Barbara Stanwyck’s Christmas in Connecticut makes the TV rounds each December, I much prefer this less well-known romantic comedy. Our Barbara plays a cynical shoplifter who’s likely to spend Christmas in jail awaiting part two of her trial. (The scene where her defense attorney tries persuading the jury that she was hypnotized when she stole the jewelry is priceless.) Even though he’s her legal adversary, the Assistant DA (Fred MacMurray) takes pity on her and arranges to drive her to her mother’s on his way home to his family. When they arrive at her mother’s door, he quickly learns why Barbara may have taken up a life of crime, and he rescues her by taking her to spend the holiday with his super nice, adorably old-fashioned family.
Look, anyone over the age of 9 knows what’s going to happen. But not all the developments, including the ending, are predictable, and besides, it’s the way it all happens.
In The Bishop’s Wife, Cary Grant plays Dudley, a handsome angel sent to set Bishop David Niven straight, while along the way he gives the Bishop’s wife (Loretta Young) tingling feelings down in her lady parts. I guess we’re supposed to realize that the angel’s is also smitten with Loretta, and that the Bishop and his marriage the better for this whole experience, but my lady parts have never really cared about those parts of the plot.
They play this a lot around Christmas, and in the 90 it was remade as The Preacher’s Wife, with Whitney Houston in the title role. Denzel Washington was well-cast as the suave and sexy angel, a part that likely affected the lady parts of those who bought tickets to this version.
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
This isn’t just one of my favorite holiday movies, this is one of my favorite 1940s comedies. Its snappy dialogue is just as snappy today as it was when the play was a hit on Broadway in 1939. Really, it’s very, very funny and it’s full of great performances and lots of stars.
“The Man”, wheelchair-bound Sheridan Whiteside, has the funniest lines, and no wonder, since he’s based on acerbic larger-than-life personality and critic Alexander Woollcott. (It was Woollcott who uttered the famous phrase, “All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal or fattening.”) Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, famous authors of the play from which this film was adapted, were good friends with Woollcott, and he’d asked that they write a play FOR him. They never came up with a suitable plot, but one day Woollcott visited Hart unexpectedly and at once took over the master bedroom, started ordering Hart’s staff around, and turned the whole place upside down with his demands and cutting remarks. When Hart described the visit to George S., they postulated, “Imagine what would have happened if he’d broken his leg and had to stay?” They looked at each other and knew immediately that they had a play.
Of course the authors asked Woollcott if he would like to play Whiteside on Broadway— and he declined! The authors then approached Monty Woolley, a Professor at Yale. They wrote him “would it amuse you to play the part of Whiteside?” to which Woolley replied, “It would amuse everyone.”
Monty reprises his role in the movie (he’s perfect), and the film’s also got Jimmy Durante (as “Banjo,” a character based on Harpo Marx), Ann Sheridan (as a character based on Gertrude Lawrence), and Reginald Gardiner (wonderful as a character based on Noel Coward).
It also stars Bette Davis in a role much more subdued and one that some (me for instance) would say pretty boring for her. But initially John Barrymore was to be Whiteside and Bette desperately wanted to play opposite him. But by this point Barrymore’s alcoholism had it so he could barely stand up much less remember lines. So Cary Grant was signed to play Whiteside, but withdrew due to Davis’ objections. (Bette had always said later that she’d rather have acted with Barrymore reading from cue cards than with anyone else. I’m very surprised she wanted to put up with Jack’s shenanigans, which put Errol Flynn’s to shame, and Bette could barley tolerate his foolishness. I’m thinking a teenage Bette must have been smitten with silent screen star John Barrymore when he was at his histrionic Hamlet-iest.) Grant was then hurried into another Warner Brothers comedy based on a popular Broadway play, Arsenic and Old Lace.) It would have been interesting to see Cary Grant in the role; he’s certainly got the comedic chops for it. But he’s just so fucking handsome it would have made a lot of Whiteside’s obnoxiousness immaterial.
Anyway, it’s a really entertaining movie, and I can’t imagine anyone not liking it.
Holiday Affair (1949)
And if those movies aren’t enough to Yuletide you over, here’s a not-too-well-known gem. You don’t expect to find the words “Robert Mitchum” and “light romantic comedy” in the same sentence. For that matter, you probably don’t expect to find the words “Robert Mitchum” and “Christmas classic” in the same sentence. But in Holiday Affair Robert Mitchum is very charming as a man who comes into the life of a single mother (Janet Leigh) to show her the meaning of Christmas and he-man-ness – as if any woman is gonna stay with beau Wendell Corey (double meh) once Bob’s barrel chest busts on to the scene. It’s a sweet film that’s got love, romance, philosophy and Robert Mitchum.
In other words, Merry Christmas!
I’m eager to hear what you think of my holiday faves, and to learn which Christmas classics really rock your manger. Please share!!