Chances are very good that if someone is asked what his or her favourite Christmas movie is, he or she will respond with It's a Wonderful Life (1946). And if he or she does not respond with It's a Wonderful Life, then he or she might reply with Miracle on 34th Street (1947). If he or she does not respond with one of those two movies, it might well be with A Christmas Story (1983), Love Actually (2003), The Apartment (1960), A Christmas Carol (AKA Scrooge, 1951), Holiday Inn (1942), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Christmas in Connecitcut (1944), The Bishop's Wife (1947), or Holiday Affair (1949). Aside from A Christmas Story, Love Actually, The Apartment, and A Christmas Carol (1951) all of these films have one thing in common--they were all made in the Forties.
Certainly there were Christmas movies made before the Forties. If one does a keyword search on IMDB for "Christmas," the earliest films listed are all from 1897. The Thirties certainly produced their share of Christmas movies, including the first talkie version of A Christmas Carol (Scrooge starring Seymour Hicks in 1935), the original version of Three Godfathers (1936), the Reginald Owen version of A Christmas Carol (1938), Holiday (1938), and Remember the Night (1940). That having been said, not only does it seem as if the bulk of the most highly regarded Christmas classics were released in the Forties, but that more holiday films were released in that decade than most.
What is more, it would seem that the bulk of Christmas movies released in the Forties were in the latter part of the decade. Certainly some of the best known Yuletide movies were released in the early part of the decade. Meet John Doe was released in 1941, while Holiday Inn and The Man Who Came to Dinner were both released in 1942, but it seems as if the last six years of the decade were a boom time for holiday movies. Indeed, the years 1946 and 1947 may well have been the best years ever for holiday movies. Nineteen forty six would see only one major feature film related to the holiday released, but it is regarded by many as the greatest Christmas movie of all time: It's a Wonderful Life. Both Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart would regard the film as their favourite, and over the years it would become the favourite Christmas movie of millions. While 1946 would have only one major holiday themed release, 1947 would be a boom year for holiday movies. What is more, it would see the release of what may be the only Christmas film to rival It's a Wonderful Life for the title of "greatest holiday film of all time:" Miracle on 34th Street. The same year The Bishop's Wife would also be released, a film that has been regarded as a holiday classic for years. Also in 1947 both Christmas Eve and It Happened on 5th Avenue were released.
No other year of the Forties would quite equal 1947, although the final years of the decade would continue to see Christmas movies released. 3 Godfathers was released in 1948, while Mr. Soft Touch, Come to the Stable, and Holiday Affair were released in 1949. By 1950 the cycle towards Christmas movies appeared to have run its course. The Great Rupert was the only significant movie dealing with the holidays released that year. It would appear that 1951 may have been the end of the cycle, with both The Lemon Drop Kid and the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol released that year. The Fifties would see more than their fair share of Christmas movies, but hardly in the numbers of the late Forties and none with as prestigious as It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street.
What may be as remarkable as the number of Christmas movies released in the Forties may well have been the sheer variety of those made. Today when we think of Christmas movies we might be inclined to think of comedies, or at least movies with a good mix of comedy and drama (the classics It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are examples of this), but there were also straight comedies (The Cheaters and Christmas in Connecticut from 1945, and It Happened on 5th Avenue from 1947), a film noir (Christmas Holiday from 1944), a Western (3 Godfathers from 1948), and dramas (Come to the Stable from 1949). While It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are the best known Christmas movies of the Forties (perhaps of all time), not every Christmas movie was made in their mould.
Of course, the pertinent question may be, "Why did the Forties, particularly the late Forties, produce so many Christmas movies?" It seems to me that it is no coincidence that there was an upswing in holiday films following the end of World War II. In fact, the post-war years would see a boom in Christmas in general.. Such classic songs as Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (1945)," "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You) (1946)," "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane) (1947)," "Sleigh Ride (1948)", and "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas (1951)" were all released during the era. It was during this period that decorating one's home with Christmas lights became common place. The Sixties would see a number of classic television specials made, including Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
As to why there was a boom in Christmas in the years following World War II, it was perhaps rooted in the war itself. World War II was an extended conflict, with soldiers gone for years. When the war ended and the soldiers returned home, they quite naturally wanted Christmases like those they remembered when they were young. Having been denied a normal, family Christmas for many years, soldiers returning from the war cannot really be blamed if they went a bit overboard with the holiday, nor can various industries (including the motion picture industry) be blamed if they were happy to oblige them. Indeed, it seems significant that at least two of the holiday films made in the Forties (Christmas in Connecticut and It's a Wonderful Life) featured soldiers returning from the war (indeed, it was central to the plot of Christmas in Connecticut), while at least one of them Holiday Affair) dealt with a war widow.
Regardless, it would appear that the Forties produced more Christmas movies than most decades and a greater percentage of holiday classics than other decades. Christmas movies were made before the Forties and Christmas movies have been made since, but no decade has ever matched the Forties in the quantity and the quality of its offerings.