Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Top 10 Favourite Holiday Movies

Tonight I find myself pressed for time, but I wanted to write another post. For that reason I decided upon something simple. This is my list of my top favourite holiday movies of all time.

1. It's a Wonderful Life

Okay, I know this is the popular choice. It is the movie that seems to top most polls on Americans' favourite Yuletide movies. The fact is that I honestly do love this film. Not only is it my favourite Yuletide movie, it is also my favourite Capra film and one of my top five favourite films of all time. In my humble opinion, It's a Wonderful Life was a starkly original film when it first came out. Insofar as I know, in no medium before then, let alone film, had the idea of showing a man what life would be without him ever been presented. What is more, in many respects It's a Wonderful Life is A Christmas Carol in reverse. In A Christmas Carol, cruel, miserly Scrooge is taught the Christmas spirit by ghosts who show him his past, his present, and his future. In It's a Wonderful Life, however, it is not a mean old miser, but a genuinely good man who has lost hope, who is taught the meaning not only of the holiday, but of life itself. These are only two of the levels upon which It's a Wonderful Life works, as it has many, many more. It is simultaneously a fantasy, a drama, a comedy, a romance. It is definitely Capra's most sophisticated film.

2. A Christmas Story

Most Christmas films at least try to be uplifting in some manner. This is not the case with A Christmas Story. Instead A Christmas Story presents us with a situation with which most Americans born in the early to mid-Twentieth century can identify.  At some point or another during our childhoods most of us had one thing that we really wanted for Christmas, which is precisely the situation Ralphie finds himself in. Not only does A Christmas Story presents us with a situation most of us have gone through, but it also hits every note when it comes to the holidays in the United States in the early to mid-Twentieth Century. It's all there. The downtown decked out in lights. The carols. The trip to get a Christmas tree. The Christmas parade.  The trip to the department store to see Santa. Christmas morning and the opening of gifts. It also gives a fine portrait of childhood in early to mid-Twentieth Century America. Hanging out with one's pals. Dealing with a bully. School. If A Christmas Story is now one of the most popular Christmas movies of all time, it may well be because it paints a fairly accurate portrait of the holiday in the United States in the early to mid-Twentieth Century.

3. Miracle on 34th Street

The commercialisation of the holidays is not a new thing, although some might think it is. In truth, the commercialisation of Christmas has been going on since at least the late 19th Century. By 1947, when Miracle on 34th Street was released, Christmas was already heavily commercialised. This is only one of the subjects tackled in what is one of the holiday films to rival It's a Wonderful Life in popularity. Miracle on 34th Street also tackles such weighty subjects as faith, the need for imagination, psychology, and even the nature of identity. It is for this reason that A Miracle on 34th Street continues to be regarded a classic and why the Nineties remake failed. It is a film that works on multiple levels and deals with several important subjects in an entertaining way.

4. A Christmas Carol (AKA Scrooge)

Dickens' A Christmas Carol has been filmed many times, but never with such flair and finesse. While the film does differ in some respects from Dicken's original novella, it is for the most part one of the most loyal adaptations. What is more, it features perhaps the most faithful recreations of Dickens' characters ever on screen. This is particularly true of Ebeneezer Scrooge, brought to life by the great Alastair Sim CBE. Generally known for his work in comedies, Sim plays Scrooge with such a panache that it is hard to even believe it is Sim merely playing a role! Mervyn Johns also gave the most convincing portrayal of Bob Cratchitt ever seen on screen. The cast is helped greatly by Brian Desmond Hunt's direction, who does a fantastic job of recreating Dickensian London. It is one film that will not disappoint Dickens fans.

5. The Man Who Came to Dinner

In 1939 the play The Man Who Came Dinner, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart debuted. A huge success on Broadway, it was naturally adapted into a feature film released in 1942. The Man Who Came to Dinner is a comedy as they could only make in the Thirties and Forties. It begins with an unlikely situation--radio host Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) finds himself stranded in the home of a middle class Ohio couple after he injures his hip on their icy walk. Afterwards Whiteside proceeds to turn their lives upside down. Situations spiral out of control. The lines come fast and furious. And as might be expected of Kaufman and Hart, references to pop culture appear with such frequency it is hard to keep track of them all (one of them may be the first feature film reference to Superman). The film benefits from a sterling cast, including Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Jimmy Durante, Billie Burke, and Mary Wickes (in her first screen appearance).

6. Christmas in Connecticut

Another comedy as they could only make them in the Thirties and Forties. Christmas in Connecticut would give Barbara Stanwyck one of her best roles, as Elizabeth Lane, a writer who writes articles about housekeeping and cooking, even though she does not know how to do either. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, she soon finds herself wrangled into cooking Christmas dinner for a war hero at the behest of her publisher (the great Sydney Greenstreet). As might be expected, the situation soon spirals out of control. Christmas in Connecticut is a smart comedy which makes the most of its situation. It also has some of the funniest lines of any film of its era (one of which I am surprised made it past the Breen Office).

7. Holiday Inn

Over the years there have been several holiday musicals, but none of them have ever topped this one. Indeed, it was Holiday Inn that introduced what would not only be the biggest selling Yuletide song of all time, but the biggest selling single of all time, "White Christmas." As Hollywood musicals go, Holiday Inn is nearly perfect. It features  the top crooner and top dancer of the time, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, in their first film together. It also featured some of the best work of Irving Berlin, including a mixture of some of his old songs ("Easter Parade," "Lazy") and new songs ("White Christmas," "Be Careful It's My Heart"). Holiday Inn also features some of the best sequences ever seen in a musical, including Fred Astaire's "drunken dance (and, yes, he really was drunk)" and his "firecracker dance." It also works quite well as a comedy, with some truly funny lines and some truly funny situations. Holiday Inn is not only the greatest holiday musical of them all, but one of the greatest musicals as well.

8. Holiday Affair

Romance has played a role in most holiday classics, from It's a Wonderful Life to Christmas in Connecticut. In Holiday Affair, romance takes centre stage. Janet Leigh plays a young widow with a comfortable life and a none too exciting boyfriend (Wendell Corey) when she finds her world turned inside out by a starry eyed romantic, ne'er-do-well played by Robert Mitchum. Like The Man Who Came to Dinner and Christmas in Connecticut, Holiday Affair is a very smart comedy. Situations spiral swiftly out of control and there is a good deal of witty lines (the scene with Harry Morgan is priceless). It is also a very intelligent romantic comedy. While many modern romantic comedies offer up a paper tiger as a rival to the hero, Holiday Affair gives us Wendell Corey, a genuinely nice guy who is truly in love with Janet Leigh's character. Holiday Affair is a comedy which offers us some very funny, very far out situations while at the same time giving us a realistic romance.

9. The Bishop's Wife

It's a Wonderful Life is not the only Yuletide film to feature an angel. An angel, played by Cary Grant no less, takes centre stage in this classic fantasy. David Niven is a bishop so preoccupied with building a new cathedral that he ignores his wife (Loretta Young) and his friends (Monty Woolley). When he prays for guidance, his prayer is answered with a most singular angel in the form of Cary Grant. It is the cast which makes this film. Grant, Niven, and Young deliver some of the best performances of their career. The film also benefits from a sterling screenplay, which was spiced up by an uncredited Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. By the way, if the little girl playing Niven and Young's daughter seems familiar, there is good reason for that. She is Karolyn Grimes, who also played Zusu in It's a Wonderful Life. Bobby Anderson, who played young George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, also makes a brief appearance in the film.

10. Meet John Doe

Meet John Doe was directed by Frank Capra, the same man who directed It's a Wonderful Life. Both films tend to be somewhat grim at times and both films climax at Christmas Eve. That having been said, in many respects Meet John Doe is a very different film from It's a Wonderful Life. In Meet John Doe Gary Cooper plays a vagrant chosen by a newspaper columnist played by Barbara Stanwyck to portray a non-existent, average, angry citizen called simply John Doe. Unfortunately, Stanwyck character's publicity stunt soon goes out of control. Meet John Doe was Frank Capra's attack on fascism and similar movements that demand conformity, public corruption, and the media. Perhaps as a result at times Capra is a bit heavy handed in Meet John Doe, and at times a bit overly sentimental, but over all Meet John Doe is an entertaining, well crafted film. Indeed, I think it holds up better than some of Capra's better known movies, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.


Tom said...

I'm not sure I know what you mean when you call "It's a Wonderful Life" Capra's
"most sophisticated film". Is this description based on all of his films, including earliest films, or just the ones you've seen? Thanks. Tom

J. Marquis said...

What do you think of "Love Actually"? That's become one of my favorites.

Carolyn said...

Great post! Since you're an It's A Wonderful Life fan, I wanted to share with you a song I wrote called George Bailey, all about the man and the movie. You can hear it on my website or watch the youtube video below. Thanks and happy holidays!

Carolyn Sills

Mercurie said...

Tom, I can't say I have seen every single Capra film, but I have seen most of them, certainly from 1929 to 1961. I think I can speak with a little bit of authority then!

J., I love "Love Actually." I probably should have included it in my top 10, along with "Serendipity," but I thought I should restrict my list to films of some vintage.

Carolyn, thanks to the link to the song and video. I like the song and the Twenties style animation!