As much as the saga of the bustling Smith family of 1903 St. Louis might seem, in many ways, to crest during the unforgettable Halloween sequence, the famous Sally Benson tale reaches its yesteryear climax with its Christmas scenes, and Judy Garland’s inimitable warbling of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” That ultra-gingerbread Victorian house never seems as at home as it does in the snowy, gaslit evening.
An overlooked screwball masterpiece from Hollywood’s golden age, written by bad-boy satiric genius Preston Sturges and directed by beloved “woman’s director” Mitchell Leisen, in which whimsical bachelor DA Fred MacMurray takes sexy shoplifting tramp Barbara Stanwyck with him to his homestead for Christmas. Sturges’s dialogue, volleyed by these pros four years before Double Indemnity, is mint, but the idiosyncratic comedy slowly, organically seeps into melancholy. The film is as smart-mouthed as it is stunningly compassionate, and Sturges’s fat heart comes through in ways that are unique in a Christmas film. The characters’ feet are planted in the real world, and the season’s triumph is rescue from the memory of a poisoned childhood.
Truly, no one who’s owned a television set anytime in the last thirty years needs to be advised to see Frank Capra’s tumultuous masterwork after Thanksgiving. To escape from the public-domain broadcast ubiquity it suffered from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, you would’ve had to have been Bigfoot, living in the woods. So we won’t linger—except to say, in case you’ve been oversaturated or distanced by televisual redundancy (far too many sympathetic viewers know this film in fragments, having happened upon signature scenes, on up to three stations at the same time, while channel-flipping), take a few years off (avert your eyes, as if from the sun), and then sit down and subject yourself to this movie’s passionate vision once again. Much more than merely a Christmas film, Capra’s magnum opus is an open exploration of midcentury American humanity, with all of its sacrifice, resilient humor, and dark self-pity, as it comes up against the inexorable hungers of postindustrial capitalism. But it’s also, helplessly, a Christmas movie, the most heartfelt of all Christmas movies, free of cliches, shopping incitements, and the need to “believe” in anything but your neighbors. If you’re not a kid—and you probably shouldn’t be if you’re going to watch this film, what with all its talk of bank runs and mortgage equity—Christmas is really about home, devotion, family, self-sacrifice, and the sometimes rueful passage of time, and this may be the only film ever made about the season that takes these simple realities as matters of fact. And it nails that snowy, small-town feeling down, despite having been shot in Encino.
Although not as badly wallpapered over December television as It’s a Wonderful Life, nor anywhere as threatening, this is arguably the most beloved of all Christmas movies. Maureen O’Hara and eight-year-old Natalie Wood arch their eyebrows over a department store Santa’s claim to being the real Kris Kringle, and a courtroom battle over his sanity makes believers out of us all. You’ll get more than just a holiday heartwarming; this movie serves up a hearty dish of late-1940s New York City nostalgia, since the story centers around Macy’s Department Store (which still takes up an entire city block after most of its competitors have vanished, and which still hosts a certain Thanksgiving Day parade). Has any era in our lifetimes signaled a sense of holiday community as potently as the postwar years? (It’s in those years that most classic Christmas songs were popularized.) The film is so powerfully familiar you probably can’t believe Edmund Gwenn or John Payne in anything else, but try nevertheless to remain dry-eyed as Gwenn, at the head of a crowded “meet Santa” line of shoppers, sings a song in Dutch to a war orphan. Caution for family viewing: if your kids still set out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve, their world might be upended by the suggestion that believing in Santa Claus could land you in Bellevue.
No one had use for this witty dose of ham-fisted yet clear-eyed nostalgia in 1983, but Bob Clark’s realization of Jean Shepherd’s immortal memoir In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash has since acquired the patina of a godsend. Truly, Shepherd’s fulminating narration and Clark’s cartoony style take getting used to, but after you’re acclimated, you’ll appreciate that the saga of Shepherd’s semi-fictionalized 1940s Indiana boyhood is blissfully funny, sharp, and sermon free. Christmas here isn’t about charity or good cheer or “faith”—it’s all about being a kid, getting presents, writing Santa letters, dealing with bullies, negotiating playground arguments, fearing the wrath of Dad, fantasizing comeuppances, suffering the ill-bought gifts of distant relatives, ad infinitum. It’s the only film even to attempt to capture the cosmic allure that a particular toy—in this case, a very particular BB gun—can have on a lower-middle-class grade-schooler. The cast is uniformly excellent, but if Peter Billingsley is brilliantly eager as the hero, and Darren McGavin equally so as his irascible, distracted furnace fighter of a father, props must be offered as well to young Ian Petrella, as the younger brother with too many of the movie’s most quotable moments. But it’s Shepherd’s enthusiastic asides, moist with amused memory and sardonic self-regard, that fuel the film. Without a crumb of sentimentality, he reminds us what Christmas is really about: our pasts, our childhood selves, our lost innocence.
This is Christmas in New York City in the 1980s, where you can meet your soul mate in a shopping bag mix-up at Rizzoli, potentially the toniest of all the Manhattan bookstores, rich with wood trim, elaborate architecture, and holiday shoppers in designer businesswear. The lovers, a low-key Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, find mutual attraction almost immediately, but they’re each married to someone else. Within the year, they flirt with an affair, try, fail, surrender to the fact of it, hem and haw—nobody easily finishes a sentence in this movie—and another Christmas comes around. It’s no Brief Encounter, for sure, but the actors are cooking on all burners, and the holidays-in-Manhattan feel is everywhere.
It may be one of America’s best-kept secrets: we as a populace don’t really love the Nutcracker ballet very much, and we resent having to ingest it every year as if it were a citizenship requirement. Most of us would be surprised to learn that the original E. T. A. Hoffmann tale has precious little to do with sugarplum fairies and all to do with a rather vicious war between toys and monster mice. Filming ballets has always been a bad move in any event, but this Carroll Ballard film version has a few saving graces beyond the score: it’s designed by Maurice Sendak, and it has a bewitching opening act, shot in intricate close-up, in which Drosselmeier embarks on his epic toy-making venture. Then there’s dancing.
Director John Huston may have been close to dying when he made this movie, but apparently no one else was going to film James Joyce’s most famous short story and make it an indelibly mournful, old-world Christmas experience. Two spinster aunts host a Christmas dinner in turn-of-the-century Dublin, when ladies wore long skirts and high lace collars and guests entertained each other with stories, songs, and dances. Outside, horse-drawn carriages glide gently through the snow; inside, the holiday feast is an occasion to discuss scandals and politics before setting aflame the Christmas pudding. That is, before a plaintive singing of a sad Irish ballad, when suddenly the past returns, the present begins to decay, and the season’s marking of time and age inspires a deep and universal melancholy. Something of a family affair (Huston’s son Tony wrote the ingeniously expanded screenplay, and daughter Angelica stars as the wife with a secret story), this dreamy adaptation refuses to be hurried, and Joyce’s prose (narrated by Donal McCann, as the husband) is surpassingly eloquent. With logs for the fire and a toast in hand, it’s a salve for those hungering for a more literate, and subtly powerful, holiday film.
A contemporary, Reagan-era revamping of A Christmas Carol that feels less contemporary the farther away we get from big-hair 1988. The legendary cranky miser is now Frank Cross, a mercenary network executive producing soulless holiday specials (Michael O’Donoghue helped write the script), Bob Cratchit is his long-suffering, underpaid secretary, and Tiny Tim is her mute son. Bill Murray injects Cross’s heartlessness with crispy, dry sarcasm, and he takes his lumps (literally) from visiting ghosts David Johansen and Carol Kane. There’s plenty of tainted, dated, even somewhat soulless New Hollywood Christmas atmosphere, but Murray is, as always, a blessing, enduring Wile E. Coyote–like jeopardy as he learns to love Christmas and his fellow man.
Another great anti-Christmas Christmas comedy, wherein a burglar (Denis Leary) who busts into an upper-class, Noel-ed-up home and ties up its squabbling inhabitants (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) is the most sympathetic person in sight. He even gets to lay out the Man: “Great. I just beat up Santa Claus.” Not a movie for kids, nor is it for kid-swaddled, holiday-impassioned parents, but the rest of you can have a ball.
Christmas sappiness plus flat-out contemporary yucks, with Will Ferrell making himself a bankable star as a human raised as a North Pole elf who ends up, in Miracle on 34th Street and Big fashion, in contemporary New York City—which here isn’t all that different from the old New York of our Christmas movie memories, down to Ferrell’s employment at Gimbel’s (the scenes were shot, it seems, in the survivor of the department store giants, Macy’s). An unexpected surprise is Zooey Deschanel crooning “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in a voice rich enough to rival the original Esther Williams version.